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Delay in vote on second Emerson school may jeopardize project

The future of a second Emerson School of Hospitality is uncertain, after Buffalo School Board members declined to vote Wednesday on Superintendent Kriner Cash's recommendation to build a satellite program on a site downtown near the existing campus.

During a contentious meeting, some board members traded barbs with Cash – telling him they felt like they had not been involved enough in the process to select a developer to build the new school.

"I just feel like we were put in a corner right now and feeling pressure," said Jennifer Mecozzi, a board member.

"You put us into a box, into a corner," said Sharon Belton-Cottman, another board member.

The district hoped to open the new school in September 2018, but the delayed vote could jeopardize their ability to meet that deadline.

District officials had recommended the old C.W. Miller Livery Building as the site of a second Emerson School of Hospitality, forming an expanded downtown campus that would allow students to explore career options. The proposal was submitted by McGuire Development Co. and Mark D. Croce.

"This industry is going to be one of the hot industries moving forward," Cash said. "We're in the epicenter."

School officials said the site was selected in part because it is around the corner from the existing Emerson on West Chippewa Street, allowing the schools to share resources and clustering the hospitality programs on the same downtown block. The district also assessed each company that submitted proposals based on its experience, financial strength and whether its plan met the educational needs of students. It considered things such as parking, access to public transportation and cost to the district, including rent and operating expenses.

"It is a known commodity on West Huron, just because of the density there," said Paul McDonnell, the district's director of facilities planning.

Some board members raised concerns during Wednesday's meeting about the location and appearance of the building. Several of the other developers proposed building new, more modern buildings.

"When I look at these two, there's no comparison," said board member Hope Jay, noting that the Uniland proposal for a school on Ellicott Street had a more inviting appearance.

A rare look at inside drama as developers jockey to build 2nd Emerson

Other board members raised concerns about safety in the downtown area, with Mecozzi saying there are a lot of "nasty" people in that area.

"I'm going to tell you how it is on the streets of Buffalo," she said, in an exchange with Cash. "There are some nasty people walking around all the time."

District leaders have been interested in expanding the popular Emerson school for years, building on its success teaching students skills they could take into careers. The school features a student-run restaurant that offers hands-on, professional experience. Emerson's graduation rate is also higher than the district average.

"Over the course of 20 years we've developed a brand there which we think we can expand upon in the future in some different areas of hospitality," said Associate Superintendent James Weimer, who used to serve as principal at Emerson.

In recent years, Weimer said, business at the Emerson restaurant has nearly tripled, because of an influx of people living and working downtown.

"It's about our students and where they might be led," said Patti Pierce, a board member. "What kind of internships, externships can they get?"

In 2015, the district opened a temporary second site at an old elementary school in South Buffalo with an eye toward relocating to a permanent location.

The district originally selected the Trico building out of 11 proposals as its preferred location, but walked away from that plan late last year after delays cast doubt that the building would be ready by the target date.

At the meeting Wednesday, board members also approved paying for any travel costs related to board members attending the hearing to remove Carl Paladino that will be in Albany later this month.

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