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ECC: Reduce and Solve the Obvious Problem

10 Feb

I’m a big believer that problems and issues should, whenever possible, be boiled down and distilled to their simplest and most concentrated form. 

So, when we’re talking about the multimillion-dollar investment in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) program at Erie Community College’s North Campus (in Williamsville, at Main and Youngs), I have a threshold question about the seriousness and sincerity of the people agitating to halt it, and move the whole lot downtown.  

So, distillation time. 

1. It’s not an argument about the quality of education.  Not one person is saying that building STEM in Williamsville, or expanding the North Campus is going to have a harmful effect on education at any of the three ECC campuses. 

2. It’s not an argument about whether we need STEM or not.  Everyone agrees that it’s a swell idea. 

3. It’s not an argument about the North Campus being somehow inadequate to handle the program. 

4. It’s not an argument about the North Campus not needing improvements.

Every single argument has to do with location, location, location.  They want the entire campus to be in downtown Buffalo.  

The statistics, taking the opponents’ word for it, show that about 47% of ECC students live in the City of Buffalo, and that only about 25% of ECC enrollees attend classes downtown.  The “move it downtown” people argue that it is much more convenient for city kids to attend STEM-hosted programs at a downtown location, because of the better public transportation connections. 

Over My Dead Body” is a wildly disproportionate reaction to an ECC plan to expand its northern campus to accommodate a multimillion dollar health and medical training center. A group of people with dubious connections to ECC itself, called “Young Citizens for ECC”, was created specifically to oppose any expansion in the ECC suburban campuses, and to concentrate all spending and programs in a consolidated downtown campus. 

There are some good points to be discussed regarding bringing health training downtown, near the medical campus. Well, sort of near the medical campus – more specifically, across downtown from the medical campus. But one of the things I always like to address is hyperbole and needless falsehoods in advocacy

Young Citizens for ECC wants to same thing Erie Community College does. We want to link our region’s young people with emerging fields in the health sciences and prepare Buffalo for a 21st-century economy. We can’t do that by making educational opportunities inaccessible, especially to people who depend on public transit. ECC needs to focus on creating stronger linkages to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which we believe will help re-brand the college, attract top talent, and prepare our region for the jobs of tomorrow.

Inaccessible. 

Not satisfied with that ridiculous charge, at least one opponent of an expansion of the North Campus refers to it as “remote”. Located between Main and Wehrle, near Youngs in Williamsville; close to the extremely busy Main & Transit corridor, it might be many things, but “remote” is not one of them. ECC North is about 13 miles from downtown Buffalo; take Metro Rail out to UB South, and then the 48 Bus directly to ECC North. It takes about an hour to commute there from downtown via public transportation, but it’s completely within reason. Of course, ECC doesn’t just accommodate students from Buffalo’s neighborhoods, but also students from throughout western New York, including neighboring counties. 

Note that Niagara County Community College isn’t in Lockport, North Tonawanda, or Niagara Falls, but sort of in the middle of nowhere.  And it draws in kids from Erie County’s northtowns – for every Erie County kid who attends NCCC, Erie County has to pay Niagara County, and vice-versa. 

The ECC Board of Trustees has pointed out that the ECC City campus is the most costly and least efficient to operate. This should be taken into account, considering the public nature of the college. 

The college didn’t pick Williamsville for its expansion to stick it to the city. According to Business First, the choice was made after an extensive (and expensive) review undertaken by a consultant retained by ECC for this project. (Here is the study itself)

Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe said other efforts endorsed by County Executive Mark Poloncarz, including the manufacturing institute championed by the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, are based in Buffalo.

“A lot is going on in the City of Buffalo, including a lot of money that the county spent on ECC in recent years,” Tobe said. “We intend to continue to upgrade the city campus along with improvements to the other two campuses.”

He said the county received a letter from critics of the Amherst campus plan and is responding to it.

ECC President Jack Quinn said the college will take part in the debate going forward but won’t be swayed from the current focus.

“We’re very comfortable with the JMZ study,” he said. “It was deliberate, objective and expensive. As far as reconsidering any major themes? Probably not.”

And wouldn’t part of the equation include: where are ECC’s students enrolled? 

The consultant, JMZ Architects and Planners, has come back with a recommendation to build on the North Campus, based on several factors, including the availability of land and parking; the need to improve the condition of the aging campus; and the fact that North has the highest enrollment of the three ECC campuses.

“This should put to bed the question, ‘Where’s the best location,’ ” Poloncarz said Tuesday.

So, at this point you’re yelling at me – so what? Just because they’re enrolled at North doesn’t mean they want to be there! Plus, 47% of enrollees live in the city! Well, the problem is that ECC North is plagued with a dreary campus, made up of a cluster of buildings reminiscent of 70s-era DMVs. Kids haven’t been flocking to ECC’s gorgeous adaptive reuse of an old downtown post office, but instead they’ve gone to Niagara County

The college first raised the issue of a new building around 2010 and set its sights on the North Campus at Main Street and Youngs Road, which consists of eight buildings constructed in phases between 1953 and the late 1960s.

The college hoped updating the unattractive North Campus would help stem the number of Erie County residents going across the border to attend school at Niagara County Community College.

When that happens, public and private money gets spent in rural Sanborn, to Erie County’s detriment. 

Part of the problem is that this is an ideological battle, rather than a practical one. When the Common Council debated the matter, ECC and the County Executive were not invited to speak on the issue. Living within a bubble of confirmation bias doesn’t always lead to good results. If a discussion is to be had, inflammatory rhetoric and exclusion aren’t the way to go. This past week, rookie county legislator Pat Burke, who represents Cheektowaga and South Buffalo, tried to put the brakes on the STEM expansion in Williamsville.  He was unsuccessful, as the GOP majority, led by Amherst legislator Tom Loughran, blocked debate on the question. 

When in doubt, accuse ECC and the county of racism, but you’re frankly not going to win an argument by calling your opponents names or by shutting them out.  

So, when we finally distill the issue down to its essence, the issue is location and transportation.  Kids in Buffalo – not just ones downtown, but on the east side, west side, North Buffalo – need better access to the various ECC campuses. Kids in the suburbs do, too. So, what is the easiest, least costly, quickest fix to all of this? 

Better dedicated shuttle buses. 

The shuttle buses that the NFTA runs between campuses are unreliable. They don’t run at convenient times. They’re infrequent. They don’t run late enough. 

So, get the NFTA out of the equation and either run or outsource a better system. Get a fleet out on the road to serve all three campuses plus the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Have some buses stop in the Buffalo neighborhoods that need them most. Run them all the time, and run them late. Give kids a mobile application to use to track the bus locations and times. Run one line between the STEM building and the medical campus on a continuous loop. 

These aren’t expensive or Earth-shattering fixes for a pretty minor problem.  This isn’t a group of kids coming in from outside WNY to live in dorms and hang out in coffee bars; they’re commuters.  They likely have jobs and families here.  Recognizing that not all of these students have cars or gas money, give them a better transportation network, and everybody wins. 

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