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Future of County Home site up in air

The vast Erie County Home and Infirmary, about a quarter-mile long, is heading for mothballs, perhaps in 2013.

About 600,000 square feet of space, dominating 150 surrounding acres, could go dark.

So where does that leave the Town of Alden, the Erie County Home's host for more than 80 years?

Apparently with the massive task of finding some use for the monstrosity -- or tolerating an empty landmark. Town leaders say that in their discussions with county government so far, they have learned that county officials do not yet have a plan for the County Home.

"It's going to be here in our backyard," Alden Supervisor Ron Smith said. "We are the ones who are going to see it every day. It is just not visible from Erie County Hall."

Consider the challenges of Buffalo's Central Terminal, or the Statler Towers. But this structure sits outside the urban center.

Will it be out of mind as well?

"I can assure you, we will work with town officials to ensure the property remains aesthetically pleasing," said Michelle Mazzone, who was appointed by County Executive Chris Collins to oversee the county's real estate.

County government will have no use for the property once Erie County Medical Center Corp. turns over the complex after opening its new facility in Buffalo, she said. But she vowed that the county will search for a new user.

She predicted that in 2012 the Collins team will look nationwide for developers interested in acquiring the site.

"You are not talking about a small parcel of land with a small building. You are talking about a large development project," she said.

The plan to close the County Home in Alden once a new nursing facility opens at the Erie County Medical Center campus on Grider Street has been called a "win-win."

ECMC Corp., which runs the County Home, will move approximately 400 residents and 400 employees into the city, where most will be closer to their families and homes. The staff will no longer need to shuttle patients 33 miles round-trip for more serious care at ECMC.

Hospital leaders forecast that the new nursing facility will be less expensive to run and better designed to provide residents more homelike surroundings. And its construction, which is to start by next summer, will create jobs.

Because of the benefits, the County Legislature today probably will go along with a plan to let the state-appointed county control board arrange a $98 million loan to finance most of the ECMC expansion on Grider. Collins has endorsed the transaction.

"They want to get the message out about the future," Smith said of county officials. "But they don't want to talk about the past -- the reality of what they are walking away from."

"We need some help from the county, at the county level," the Alden supervisor said. "It is their building. It is their responsibility. They should be a good neighbor and not just walk away."

"It is going to take, I think, some aggressive marketing," said Fred K. Heinle, director of the Alden Economic Development Committee. "We in the town don't have the financial capacity to undertake that on our own but at this point we are left to our own devices."

The Erie County Board of Supervisors in the 1920s built the County Home, often called the Wende Home, on tracts donated by the Wende family far from the urban center. Its symbiotic companion at the time was the county's Wende penitentiary, which also operated an adjacent farm.

The county penitentiary was eventually sold to state government and became a state prison. The county in the 1980s built a new correctional facility right across Walden Avenue from the County Home. So Alden has become accustomed to government as its largest landowner.

Walden is dotted with factories and office plazas as it extends into Alden. But those factories stop before the frontage claimed by the County Home and the correctional facility. The stretch of road has water and sewer services. Folks on the Alden Economic Development Committee call it their "Walden Avenue Corridor."

In an interview this week, committee members agreed that it might make sense to tear down the home -- if someone else pays for that huge undertaking.

"We would love to get this land back on the tax rolls," said Christopher E. Gust, president of the Alden Chamber of Commerce. "We are in a situation in the Town of Alden where 40 percent of our land is off the tax rolls because it's owned by the county or the state."

But if it's not torn down, what potential uses are in store for such a large structure?

It's too early to say, said Mazzone, the county director of real estate. She said decisions about razing the home will be made only after interested buyers offer their ideas.

It's not likely that another nursing home will go there. Former County Executive Joel A. Giambra said his administration, trying to get out of the nursing home business early in the last decade, offered to sell it to a private operator or have the operator run it under a contract with Erie County.

"The first idea was to try to privatize it, and there was no interest in that. Then to give it away at fire-sale numbers," he said. "The thing was built out in the middle of nowhere, that's the problem."

Those offers were made before Erie County Medical Center was spun off as a public-benefit corporation, making ECMC Corp. better able to compete with other hospitals.

"I used to refer to it as one of our pet alligators," Giambra said of the County Home.

"All we do is feed it."