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ECC sticks with plan to build in Amherst; Talks also under way on shifts downtown

Erie Community College won't reopen discussions about consolidating its three campuses.

The college will continue to push forward with plans to construct a new academic building on the North Campus in Amherst, despite pressure to erect it in the city.

New conversations, meanwhile, were under way on carving out a larger footprint for ECC downtown -- perhaps by moving the school's culinary program to the Statler Towers and relocating some classes into the former AM&A's building.

Those are the latest developments for ECC, where plans for the $30 million academic building stirred up controversy and set off an old debate over consolidating its three campuses.

ECC officials on Wednesday reiterated their positions on campuses in the suburbs and the city. "I think the trustees are as committed as ever to building an academic building on the North Campus, and they are as committed as ever to our City Campus," ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr. said. "I heard more than one of them say, 'This does not have to be an either-or.' "

Plans for the North Campus building provoked opposition in the community from those who want it downtown, including former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra, who fought for years to consolidate the three campuses in Buffalo to help revitalize the city's core.

Assemblyman Sam Hoyt, a Democrat, and State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, a Republican, recently chimed in. The two state lawmakers from Buffalo suggested the three-campus model no longer is financially feasible and rather than build on the outdated North Campus, the college should get rid of it altogether.

Patricia A. Krzesinski, chairwoman of ECC board of trustees, tried to put that idea to rest at Wednesday's board meeting on the City Campus.

"There's no interest by anyone on the board to consolidate," Krzesinski told The Buffalo News after the meeting. "That's unanimous."

Despite opposition, the board is pushing ahead with plans to build on the North Campus and scheduled a meeting for July 20 to go over details as the project moves forward. Issues have arisen over the financing.

Erie County Executive Chris Collins has committed $7.5 million from the county, while ECC would raise another $7.5 million. That would be matched by $15 million in state construction funds. State officials, however, questioned whether ECC could come up with its portion, so the county executive agreed to borrow however much the ECC Foundation fell short in fundraising, explained William D. Reuter, the college's chief administrative and financial officer. The college then would be responsible for paying off that debt, Reuter said.

Bernice Radle, a representative for a group called Young Citizens for ECC, was given three minutes at Wednesday's meeting to voice her opposition to a new North Campus building.

Radle tried to convince the board that the new building was best suited downtown near the growing Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Giambra, who also attended the meeting, questioned why the public wasn't given the opportunity to speak. Krzesinski told Giambra he would have to make that request to the board before the meeting, as Radle had done.

"None of this discussion has been done in a public fashion and that's inappropriate," Giambra told The News.

Giambra said he still is considering a lawsuit to block the building on the North Campus. He also said he was not satisfied with what he called a "compromise" to move ahead with the project in Amherst, while increasing the college's footprint downtown.

Quinn has held discussions with developers Rocco Termini and Mark Croce about how ECC might use space in their downtown projects.

Termini is expected to bring the board a plan for his former AM&A's building, while discussions have been held on locating the culinary program in Croce's Statler Towers.

Quinn also said he has had conversations about leasing space on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, using space in the Central Library downtown and making ECC's automotive technology program available in the city. College officials took issue with criticism that the college isn't committed to the city, pointing out that $9 million in masonry and roofing work has begun on the City Campus building. "In the last couple of years, we have spent 60 percent of our capital construction funds downtown at a campus where 24 percent of our students go," Krzesinski said. "To paint us in a light that we don't care about the City Campus is just not true."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com