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Lawsuit could rekindle debate over merging ECC campuses

When Erie Community College student Wil Turner learned a few months ago that college officials were planning a new $30 million academic building in Amherst, he had a simple question: “Why can’t you improve what you already have?”

Turner is less than impressed with the upkeep of the college’s Orchard Park campus.

Windows look as if they haven’t been cleaned in years, and the restrooms are in need of a serious overhaul, said Turner, a Lackawanna resident studying criminal justice.

“There are so many other problems,” said Turner, who called the college “overextended.”

His frustration with the state of the current facilities prompted him to join a lawsuit challenging construction of the new 55,000-square-foot facility at Main Street and Youngs Road.

“It seems reasonable to take care of the babies you have,” he said, “before you have another baby.”

Turner joined former Erie County Executive Joel Giambra and Buffalo Common Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. in asking the State Supreme Court to halt further planning on the building until its potential environmental impacts are fully explored.

The new facility, which has yet to be designed, would be the most expensive construction project in the history of the college of about 12,000 students. It is expected to house programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields. College officials were hoping to break ground in the spring, with a targeted opening date of September 2017.

Supporters of the project have maintained that the new building will be the key to revitalizing an Amherst campus in need of significant upgrades.

They also believe it will keep more Erie County students from pursuing community college degrees in other counties – a scenario that annually costs local municipalities millions of dollars in so-called “charge-back” fees.

“We’re committed to being a county community college and Amherst is our biggest campus,” said ECC Board Chairman Stephen Boyd. “It’s a campus we take pride in and have to improve.”

But Turner, Giambra and Golombek said the new building in Amherst would be a costly mistake for the region – akin to the decision 50 years ago to build a second campus for the University at Buffalo in Amherst.

“It’s like deja vu all over again. At times I’ve felt like I’m in the twilight zone,” Giambra said. “Just think where the City of Buffalo and this region would be right now if all that spending had taken place in the City of Buffalo.”

The lawsuit could reignite a public debate over the future of ECC that Giambra started during his time as county executive, when he advocated for the three campuses of the college to be merged into a single downtown campus. Giambra’s proposal didn’t gain enough political traction, but he has continued to push for a central campus since leaving office in 2007.

“We’re trying to force a thoughtful, intellectual discussion about why we need one campus and why this building should be downtown,” Giambra said.

ECC President Jack Quinn said those debates and discussions already have happened, a few times over.

“The studies were done. The hearings were held,” Quinn said. “To do what Mr. Giambra wanted to do was $350 million. Ten years ago. It was a great plan, great idea. What stopped it? There wasn’t any funding for it.”

In a statement delivered by his spokesman, Peter Anderson, current County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said he supported “three strong Erie Community College campuses,” and he accused Giambra of “trying to prevent our community from moving forward with three strong ECC campuses.”

Poloncarz, the college’s board of trustees and a majority of the County Legislature support putting the new building in Amherst.

The county has agreed to pay $7.5 million toward the project, with another $7.5 million coming from the college and $15 million coming from state funds.

Golombek said he objected to the building being put in Amherst because it makes more sense to be downtown, close to the city’s emerging medical corridor.

“My position is anything related to medical or science should be in downtown Buffalo,” he said. “A generation or two from now people will say, ‘My goodness this should have been downtown, why wasn’t it?’ ”

Golombek wasn’t arguing in favor of a single campus downtown, however. “I have no position on that,” he said.

Turner wasn’t necessarily sold on a one-campus ECC, either, although he said he saw merit in the idea, especially considering the condition of the school and its declining enrollment.

“If it was a state-of-the-art campus, I believe they would increase enrollment,” he said.

Giambra said ECC’s three-campus system holds the college back because so much money is wasted on duplicative services and space.

Moving to a single campus would save the college at least $2.5 million a year, he said.

And it’s becoming clearer the three-campus system is not sustainable, Giambra said. He pointed out the college has had to dip into its fund balance in each of the past three years to balance its budgets and doesn’t appear to have placed in reserve any monies for contract settlements with its faculty.

But Quinn said the three-campus system has been a positive for ECC in a survey of students.

“One of the things the study found is that among students, our geography is a strength for us,” he said.

Quinn said the lawsuit would slow down the development of crucial programs in the STEM fields, potentially hurting the local economy – a lament echoed by the County Executive’s Office.

“We can’t afford to waste time getting people educated and trained for these jobs,” said Anderson, spokesman for Poloncarz.

But lawyer Richard G. Berger, who filed the petition, said state law requires ECC and the county to conduct a full environmental impact statement before moving ahead with the project.

County officials informed the state Department of Environmental Conservation in July that the project will have no significant environmental effects.

“One of the objectives of the lawsuit is to open this project up to public discussion,” Berger said. “There’s been no opportunity for the public to comment on it and to weigh in with their ideas, and that’s really necessary whenever there’s a huge investment of public dollars.”