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Construction of STEM building at ECC’s North Campus delayed

A long-awaited new academic building for Erie Community College’s North Campus in Amherst won’t be ready by the fall of 2017, as county and college officials had expected.

The delay stems in part from a bureaucratic holdup in the release of $15 million in state funds promised for the project.

But an objection to the county’s plan to use a project labor agreement also contributed to pushing back the construction timeline for the new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math building.

Erie County officials now anticipate the building planned for the Youngs Road side of the campus will be ready by December 2017 or January 2018.

“I’m disappointed. I think it’s safe to say the college is disappointed it’s delayed again,” said ECC President Jack Quinn. “It’s frustrating for me because this project is really important to us for a lot of reasons.”

Instead of having shovels in the ground in May, as college and county officials anticipated, the county will begin advertising next week for bids on about dozen aspects of the construction work – including site preparation and utilities, excavation, structural steel and masonry, said Erie County Commissioner of Public Works John Loffredo.

Bids will be unsealed the first week of June, he said.

Brian Sampson, president of the Empire State Chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, wrote in February to Quinn, to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and to Chairman of the Legislature John Mills urging that the county not use a PLA, a collective bargaining arrangement that requires nonunion contractors to hire employees through local union halls in exchange for no-strike promises from unions. Sampson said in the letter that using a PLA will drive up costs and allow union workers from neighboring states to take construction jobs away from qualified nonunion skilled crafts workers in Western New York. The concerns prompted county lawyers to take a closer look, but county officials said they’re comfortable moving forward with a PLA. The county previously used PLAs for renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium and for an addition to the Erie County Courthouse, Loffredo said. Both of those projects proceeded smoothly, he said.

“It allows union contractors and nonunion contractors to work on the same project,” he said. “Everybody gets a little something, basically, with a project labor agreement.”

The delay comes as college officials struggle to close a $7.5 million gap in the budget for 2016-17 caused largely by declining enrollment at ECC. Between spring of 2012 and this spring, total enrollment has dropped 21 percent, from 11,115 students to 8,788 students.

Projected to cost $30 million when first proposed, the new facility will be the most expensive construction project in the history of the college. Supporters of the project believe that it will keep more Erie County students from pursuing community college degrees in other counties – which annually costs local municipalities millions of dollars in so-called charge-back fees.

College and county officials also are counting on the project to kick-start revitalization of an aging North Campus, which is the most populous of ECC’s three sites but is often ridiculed for its unattractive, low-slung buildings. The STEM building will include two stories and 57,000 square feet – about half the size of an average Home Depot store. It will house science laboratories, classrooms, study spaces, prep rooms, a tutoring center and faculty offices. A small cafe on the first floor near the main entry plaza also is planned.

The completed facility “will help enrollment and it will drive more students to us,” Quinn said.

The building has been delayed for years since the state first agreed in 2010 to earmark $15 million and the county $7.5 million, to go along with the college’s share, $7.5 million. The project sparked a lawsuit in 2014 over whether the county had done a proper environmental review and rekindled debate about whether ECC should continue to maintain three campuses.

The college so far has saved or raised $5.3 million of its share for the project. The county plans to front the remaining $2.2 million by amending a consolidated 2016 bond resolution that sets aside $3.8 million for other ECC capital projects. In addition, the project now is expected to exceed $30 million by up to $2 million.

Those additional costs likely will be covered under the amended bond, as well.

ECC will have to find other ways to pay for ongoing capital needs – such as roof replacement, walkway repairs and other projects – that were identified in the original 2016 bond resolution.

Despite the STEM building delay, other construction will begin soon on the North Campus. College officials on Wednesday will hold a groundbreaking for a $3.1 million addition to Bretschger Hall, which will house the college’s new nanotechnology program. The annex and renovations to Bretschger – funded by a state grant that also includes more than $2 million in state-of-the-art lab equipment – are expected to take several months and be ready for use in the spring 2017 semester, allowing students to take the lab-intensive “capstone” courses necessary for a two-year degree in nanotechnology.