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Giambra revives fight over ECC; Former county executive reaches out to political allies, urging them to apply pressure for new building to be located downtown, rather than on college's suburban campus

A new building at Erie Community College may seem like an odd issue for public debate, until you realize who's behind the scenes stirring the pot: Joel Giambra.

The former Erie County executive, who spent his tenure in office determined to merge the community college's three campuses downtown, is at it again.

This time, like last time, he's raising the issue of consolidation as he tries to sway support for a new academic building downtown, rather than on the Amherst campus as is being discussed.

He's reaching out to political ties to apply pressure.

He's been pleading his case at meetings of Buffalo Place, an influential group set up to improve downtown.

He's threatening a lawsuit if ECC tries to build in Amherst.

"When you're in a community where the population is getting older, smaller and poorer, how can you justify keeping a campus in triplicate?" Giambra asked. "It doesn't make sense."

Giambra isn't alone.

There has been a small grass-roots movement to stop a new building from going up on the college's suburban campus.

Some lawmakers representing the city have raised the issue, too.

The Buffalo Common Council, in fact, recently asked the county to pull funding for the project.

But there's a feeling Giambra is behind a lot of the noise.

"All the conversations I've had about putting this building in the City of Buffalo have been with former county executive Joel Giambra and his supporters," said ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr.

"He has said to me this project is part of the unfinished business from his time as county executive," Quinn said.

Clearly, though, ECC is not considering consolidation of its three campuses, which are located in Amherst, Orchard Park and downtown.

The upfront costs would be hefty, and ultimately, the feeling is a majority of students don't want it, college officials have said. Years of wrangling over the idea of merging prevented money from being spent on campus maintenance, which has come back to haunt the college.

There's little interest in traveling down that road again.

"The college has made it clear that's not its vision for the future," said Deputy County Executive Richard M. Tobe. "That effort was fought during Joel Giambra's administration. It did not succeed, and we do not wish to reopen it."

"Our goal is to have a first-rate training program that will meet the needs of our employers as soon as possible," Tobe said. "In the end, economic development is more important than another prolonged, distracting and inconclusive philosophical battle."

>Jury may still be out

But the jury may still be out on a new academic building.

The college's plan was to construct a $30 million building on the aging North Campus in Amherst -- half funded by the state, a quarter coming from the county and the rest raised by the college.

Initially, the college talked about the new building as a home for health science programs, which rallied opponents, like Giambra, who think a building used for that would be better suited near the emerging Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus on the edge of downtown.

New County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz addressed the issue in recent weeks and reaffirmed the county's financial commitment to the project, but said he also wants to take a step back.

As a result, the county and college have agreed to hire an outside consultant to determine exactly what the space needs are for ECC programs, which will help decide where exactly the new building should be located -- that includes downtown.

But it could take nine months to a year before all the information is gathered to make a decision on a new building, Tobe said, and that should provide a timeout for the public debate over its location.

"To the extent there's been a community debate, it's been about where," Tobe said, "and to us, that's not the first question."

>One 'wow' campus

Yet to Giambra, it's still the only question.

His idea to merge ECC goes back to his days as city comptroller, and as county executive, Giambra fought with ECC officials for years to consolidate the three campuses into one "Wow" campus, following a theme of regionalism that marked his administration.

He thought he made some progress before leaving office, when both sides signed off on a plan to keep open the North and South Campuses, but shift faculty and students from the suburban campuses to boost the college's downtown presence.

When Giambra went away, though, the college was more than happy to leave the issue behind and move ahead with its three-campus model.

Giambra, 55, is now a lobbyist for former U.S. Senator Alphonse D'Amato's firm, Park Strategies, and there's speculation he has renewed his old fight on behalf of a client. He denies that.

"Who are you working for?" a friend asked him.

"My client is the taxpayer," Giambra answered. "The only thing is they're not paying me."

Instead, Giambra said the issue has become a passion for him.

ECC is his alma mater. And he still feels the decision to build the University at Buffalo in Amherst was one of the region's colossal mistakes. He thinks consolidating ECC downtown would make up for it just a little bit.

"Look," he said, pointing out the window of his office in the Ellicott Square one recent afternoon. "There's nobody on Main Street. It's sad."

But if swaying opinion on this issue was an uphill battle as county executive, Giambra's not likely to have a captive audience this time around.

Still, he said, he doesn't like to take no for an answer.