Share this article

print logo

Giambra's passion unfulfilled

This is the one that matters most to him. More than anything else, it encapsules all that he wanted to stand for or tried to do. It is the boulder he continues to push, years after his stunning fall from grace to disgrace.

Joel Giambra will not, cannot, let the idea go: Collapse the three Erie Community College sites into one city campus.

The single notion encompasses all of the elements of a message that captured the community and lifted Giambra to the county executive's office: Smaller, leaner government. Sprawl reversal. Consolidation. City revival -- especially now, with ECC City down the street from the blooming Medical Campus.

The captivating message, of course, came before the red/green budget put the torch to Giambra's political career and, by association, gave regionalism a bad name. Plenty of good stuff was thrown out with Giambra's bathwater. The bad taste remains in many mouths. But for this, he is back.

"The three campuses were built on expectations of a growing population that never happened," he told me. "Yet we hang onto the redundancy and inefficiency."

The cause is just. The crusader? Flawed, but persistent -- and still politically connected. This time, there may be more results than rhetoric.

Mark Poloncarz, the county executive, put a hold on his predecessor's plan for a new building on the tattered ECC North Campus in Amherst. It opens the door for a downtown alternative.

"If we build in Amherst," Giambra said, "it perpetuates mediocrity and inefficiency."

Win that battle, and the ECC consolidation war is on.

I met Giambra on Friday for coffee. He is lean and tan, his thick hair steely gray. He made a soft landing at ex-Sen. Al D'Amato's lobbying firm. He left office with a $708,000 campaign stash to dole out to candidates. His phone calls to politicians get returned. He is less defensive these days about his self-immolation, citing a list of good works -- from the historic Commercial Slip to the Public Safety Building to early preservation and gay rights victories. But the consolation of the ECC consolidation prize eludes him.

From his office in Ellicott Square, Giambra has a crow's nest view of lightly traveled Main Street.

"Imagine the difference it would make, bringing 14,000 students and faculty into downtown," he noted. "It helps retail. It reverses migration. I will never back off on this issue," he vowed, "because I'm on the right side of it."

The right players are in place for something to happen. Poloncarz, an urban-friendly Democrat, is taking a second look. Giambra's political protege in Albany, Mark Grisanti, carries the torch in the Senate. Sean Ryan has grabbed the ECC baton from predecessor Sam Hoyt in the Assembly. Hoyt has a pipeline to Andrew Cuomo. The governor, with two recent appointees, is shaping the ECC board to his liking. Mayor Byron Brown, who stands to gain more than any politician from a brawnier city campus, may someday awaken and take up arms.

Cuomo needs to weigh in if he's serious about his campaign promise of consolidation and leaner government.

For Giambra, it is about more than policy. It's personal.

"Yeah, doing something with ECC helps my legacy," he acknowledged. "Is that what's driving me? No it's about stopping sprawl, fighting inefficiency, keeping the city as vibrant as possible."

Indeed, this is bigger than any one person. But Giambra, for years, has been the political face of the ECC fight.

Flawed crusader, noble cause. Maybe the Giambra era is not over yet.