County pledges $7.5 million for new ECC building, with strings attached

Plans to build a new Eric Community College (ECC) building at its North Campus in Amherst have drawn steady criticism over the past year from opponents who argue the project would perpetuate suburban sprawl.

Now ECC’s plans are up in the air, with the Poloncarz administration requesting the school prepare a detailed study of what the new building will contain, which could determine its eventual location.

“The study will help us with that. There’s an argument in the community now that if the building is going to be used for health science, as was one time proposed, maybe it ought to be downtown," says Richard Tobe, deputy Eric County executive. "If it’s being used for a different purpose then there’s a question as to what’s the best location to suit that purpose.” 

Yet the county is not backing away from a pledge to pay for a significant portion of the building’s cost. Earlier this week, new County Executive Mark Poloncarz upheld a promise made by his predecessor Chris Collins to slate $7.5 million for the project.

But the funds come with strings attached. Since ECC can’t afford the new building without the county kicking in its share, the Poloncarz administration is using that leverage to to ask the school to justify its current plans. 

The study could take a year to finish, according to Tobe.

“At this point we don’t know how much of the basic work that would go into getting answers to these questions has been done by the college and how much we have to obtain,” says Tobe.

That’s welcome news to Greg Conley, who as part of Young Citizens for ECC has argued that current plans would prevent students without vehicles from easily accessing the building’s programs.

“Realistically this is not anywhere near a shovel going in the ground yet. They still do not have all the money to be able to build yet,” says Conley

Original plans called for the structure to contain health science programs, which Conley says could create synergies between students and the emerging Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

But ECC now calls the structure a modern “classroom building” that would keep students from Erie County from enrolling in neighboring community colleges. County taxpayers bear the brunt of that trend in what are known as "chargebacks." For each student, the county must reimburse those other community colleges to the tune of $3-$4 million a year, according to ECC President Jack Quinn.

Regardless of the outcome of the study, the county’s pledge to help pay for it is not contingent on its results, Tobe says.