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Trico site eyed for new Emerson School amid questions

Some people think apartments and a hotel would be ideal for the sprawling Trico building on the edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

It also might be a nice home for Buffalo’s newest high school.

Buffalo school administrators are considering space in the former windshield wiper factory at 817 Washington St. for the district’s second Emerson School of Hospitality.

“We wanted to expand on the current success of the Emerson program with a new, innovative high school, and we looked at the opportunity to expand it into a full hospitality experience, instead of just a culinary experience, that includes hotel management, travel and tourism,” said Paul McDonnell, the district’s director of facilities, planning, design and construction.

School officials have recommended the site to the Buffalo Board of Education, which likes the idea, but has reservations about whether the long-delayed redevelopment of the former Trico Products Corp. building will ever pan out or come together by the district’s target date in 2017.

Krog Corp., the Orchard Park company named designated developer of the building in December 2013, is proposing a 138-room extended-stay hotel, run by Hart Hotels, along with apartments and commercial and retail space. Krog had until the end of January to wrap up the purchase of the building, but was given a June 1 extension – its fifth – to work out parking issues.

“We like the project,” said School Board Member Larry Quinn, “but there are serious feasibility questions and I don’t want the district to be in a position where it’s stuck with something that doesn’t happen, we got rid of the other competing proposals and now we’re stuck without a school.”

The district is leaning toward naming Krog the designated developer for a limited period of time while the company proves the project is moving forward and responds to concerns raised by school officials. Meanwhile, the district’s second and third choices – a site downtown and another in Larkinville – would remain as potential options should the Trico site fall through.

Emerson, located at 70 W. Chippewa St., was originally part of the Emerson Vocational High School on Sycamore Street, but was spun off and moved to its current site in 1999.

The high school has been a success for the Buffalo school district, combining academics with culinary arts while featuring a popular ground-floor restaurant operated by the students. As student enrollment grew – it has maxed out at around 485 – the district in September opened a second Emerson at a vacant school in South Buffalo until a new location can be built.

The original concept was to work with Larkin Development Group – which owns the Emerson building on Chippewa – to find a location for Emerson II in the city’s Larkinville District.

While that area has been a focus because of the potential for walk-in traffic for another restaurant, the district decided to put the Emerson project out for competitive bid. Eleven developers submitted proposals for sites throughout the city, including the Gates Circle campus, Hertel Avenue and the aging DL&W Terminal behind First Niagara Center.

School officials narrowed the field to three, but eventually recommended the Trico site because of its proximity to not only the Medical Campus, but downtown, Allentown and the Fruit Belt, McDonnell said. The site also has easy access to public transportation, with the redeveloped Metro Rail stop at Allen Street three to four blocks north.

What’s particularly enticing is the school’s ability to work with both Hart Hotels as well as the larger Medical Campus.

“We think that the medical corridor itself offers a myriad of opportunities for hospitality students,” said James Weimer Jr., associate superintendent of school leadership and former Emerson principal.

“There are a number of corollaries between hospitality and the way health care is going now,” Weimer said. “That’s where a lot of hospitality is headed – into the medical field. We felt that was a terrific location for our students.”

The school district is looking for 80,000 square feet of space that would include offices, classrooms, a cafeteria, a gym, a public restaurant, a restaurant kitchen, a bakery, a banquet room and a private dining area. The district is seeking a 15-year lease with options to renew for 15 or 20 years.

Besides concerns about the timetable for the Trico project, School Board members during a committee meeting last week raised questions about the financial plan and whether the Medical Campus was, indeed, the best location for a new Emerson.

“Do we have an idea of what pedestrian traffic is there?” said School Board Member Jason McCarthy. “If you don’t have foot traffic you don’t have business, and you don’t have the same success as you have on Chippewa.”