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Student housing may be coming to ECC North in mixed-use proposal

SUNY Erie Community College wants to construct a mixed-use building at its North Campus to forge deeper ties between the college, the business community and the Town of Amherst.

The college would build a structure on, or near, the campus to host ECC's first student housing, a business incubator and space for a grocery store or other retail options.

"The innovation hub would attract people to be part of that atmosphere, to be part of the thinking and the creativity that goes along with that," Dan Hocoy, who took over as ECC's president last summer, said in an interview on the North Campus.

Hocoy has discussed the proposal with local officials and developers, including Uniland Development Co. Uniland owns two sites across Youngs Road from the campus and could develop the project if ECC opts to build off campus, Hocoy said.

Amherst Supervisor Brian J. Kulpa and A.J. Baynes, president and CEO of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, say the idea has merit and they look forward to hearing more details about the project and how it would strengthen the college's connection to the surrounding community.

"I have an interest in seeing that kind of thing available to town residents, because it's something we lack," Kulpa said.

ECC has worked to bulk up its offerings in the sciences and technology. Hocoy said the college needs to train students for the jobs companies need to fill now and in the future.

After a decadelong delay, the college in January opened its new, $30 million science building – the most expensive single construction project in the history of the college and the first new freestanding building on the Amherst campus in decades.

"We've definitely doubled down with innovation at North," Hocoy said.

Maybe the jokes will stop now that ECC's new science building gets high marks

Hocoy said investment in the North Campus could bring back some of the students from Erie County, primarily in the Northtowns, who cross the county line to attend Niagara County Community College.

About 1,600 Erie County residents attend NCCC – which has on-campus student housing – and towns, villages and cities here are charged a fee to cover part of the cost of their education.

ECC for years has eyed building student housing, saying it would appeal to local students who want a fuller college experience, out-of-town athletes and international students.

"I think that's important for any college," Hocoy said. "It creates a different atmosphere."

Developer Jake Schneider in 2010 opened 91 loft-style dormitory apartments in the converted Alling & Cory warehouse at Elm and North Division streets, near the City Campus. And Zaepfel Development in 2011 proposed building a three-story residential complex on Youngs Road, across from the North Campus, but that project stalled.

The mixed-use building would combine student housing with an incubator of some kind and with retail space.

Hocoy said the structure would spark creative ideas by encouraging students, faculty and local business leaders and entrepreneurs to engage formally and informally. He said he thinks the concept would be attractive to companies.

The retail and residential portions of the complex presumably would bring in revenue to the college in the form of rent or lease payments.

Hocoy said he has talked to Kulpa, the town supervisor, about the mixed-use building project, which the ECC president believes could boost the college's ties to Amherst.

He said it also would bolster ECC's ability to serve as an economic engine for the town and the wider community.

Baynes, the Amherst Chamber's CEO, said the University at Buffalo has spaces like the one proposed by ECC that encourage entrepreneurial activity.

He said the idea is preliminary but public-private partnerships like this proposal are worth pursuing.

"I think it's good to be putting ideas out there," Baynes said.

The college hasn't produced detailed plans yet, nor has it begun to determine how much the building would cost and who would pay for it.

ECC also needs to decide where to construct any building – on the North Campus, or just off the campus.

The college has discussed with Uniland the possibility of placing the building on one of the company's two nearby sites: at 1790 Wehrle Drive, at Youngs Road, or at 6126 Main St., also at Youngs.

Uniland spokeswoman Jill Pawlik declined to comment on those talks.

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