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Second Emerson School of Hospitality sparks interest

Local real estate developers submitted nearly a dozen proposals for a second location in Buffalo for the Emerson School of Hospitality, demonstrating not only the success and popularity of the magnet public high school but also the apparent attractiveness of partnering with the city school district.

A veritable who’s who of prominent developers – including Howard Zemsky, Peter Krog, Rocco Termini, Thomas Montante, Jim Dentinger and Michael Huntress, plus three others – responded to the district’s request for options about where to place a second hospitality school. While Larkinville remains an area of focus, with three sites proposed, developers also suggested buildings or vacant land in downtown Buffalo, the waterfront, the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Hertel Avenue.

Some of the proposals called for new construction on empty land, while others entailed adaptive reuse of older buildings – including the Trico Products Corp. warehouse at 817 Washington St., the Gates Circle campus, the former Pinnacle Charter School and the aging DL&W Terminal behind First Niagara Center.

“We got more interest than we actually thought we were going to get,” said Paul McDonnell, the district’s director of facilities planning, design and construction. “We’re in the midst of evaluating it now, and we hope to have a decision in the next few weeks, because time is of the essence.”

With the existing school on Chippewa Street bursting at the seams, district officials want to capitalize on the hospitality program’s momentum by expanding it to more students.

That will provide more educational opportunities for students to learn valuable skills and practical trades at a time when the city’s hotel and restaurant industry is picking up steam. It also enables the district to create another high school in an area of the city where there may be a gap.

Moreover, it’s a chance for the embattled district to refocus attention on one of its success stories instead of the steady drumbeat of failing schools and low graduation rates.

“Emerson has always been touted as a very, very successful program, with a good graduation rate, and more importantly, it’s been a place where kids want to go,” McDonnell said. “We have more kids than we have seats. So we wanted to replicate the program.”

Under longtime Emerson Principal James Weimer Jr., the district already has started another group of 130 ninth-graders in temporary space at the former School 28, at Seneca Street and Bailey Avenue in South Buffalo, and officials expect another class to begin there next September. That building, now Emerson Annex, was closed three years ago, but is still owned by the district.

Plans call for opening the new location by September 2017, so it would already have freshman, sophomore and junior classes.

“This will be very ambitious,” McDonnell said.

Dentinger, president of McGuire Development Co., said the project appeals to developers because of the district’s stable tenancy, a unique mix of uses and the opportunity to work on the public sector side, especially by helping the languishing district. “Any businessperson recognizes that the strength of the city’s renaissance is based on the educational opportunity for the kids in all neighborhoods,” Dentinger said. “This is a project that a developer can be excited about.”

Other developers declined to comment or did not respond.

“There’s some great proposals,” said Weimer, now the associate superintendent of school leadership. “It’s wonderful that we’ve got so many options.”

Located at 70 West Chippewa, Emerson combines academics with culinary arts and training for food industry careers, and features a popular ground-floor restaurant that is open to the public. The program was originally part of the Emerson Vocational High School on Sycamore Street, but was spun off and moved to its current site in 1999 by Weimer. With an enrollment of 485, it’s now at maximum capacity, prompting the decision to expand.

Emerson is a tenant on Chippewa, in a building owned by Zemsky’s Larkin Development Group, so the initial concept was to seek out a location in Larkinville, on vacant land owned by Zemsky’s group. Officials felt that area was attractive because of its growth and the potential for walk-in traffic for another restaurant. And there’s no high school between downtown and South Park High School, McDonnell said.

Larkin Development came up with proposals, but the district decided to put the project out for competitive bid after seeing the cost projections, McDonnell said. Officials also opened up the geography to other areas of the city, including the medical campus, Elmwood Village and North Buffalo.

The district issued the request for proposals in October, initially giving developers until Nov. 4 to respond, but then extending that to Nov. 18.

The RFP sought a “turn-key” 80,000-square-foot facility with 16 general classrooms, eight special-education classrooms, an art room, two resource rooms, two science labs, a library, a computer classroom, a cafeteria, a gym and various offices, similar to what exists on Chippewa, with about $4 million in furniture and equipment. It would also have a 3,000-square-foot public restaurant, a 3,000-square-foot bakery, 4,500-square-foot restaurant kitchen, a private dining room, a 2,500-square-foot banquet room, and a banquet office, plus 100 parking spaces.

Sites had to be “convenient for public transportation” and in areas “with a high amount of potential breakfast or lunch customers.” The building has to be air-conditioned, with a backup power supply, and had to be similar in quality to the existing Emerson facility, including high-level finishes for the restaurant and carpeting for the banquet rooms. The district sought a 15-year lease, with options to renew for 15 or 20 years.

Officials are now reviewing the proposals for cost and location, including proximity to other schools and access for both cars and pedestrians. They also are evaluating criteria such as the quality of the proposals, the developers’ track records with hospitality projects, their design teams, and their past experience with the state Education Department. Environmental issues and work schedules also are factors.

“It’s exciting. It’s been an interesting process,” McDonnell said.