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UB, SUNY officials hold forum with Fruit Belt residents

  Alexander

Alexander Wright, executive director of Urban Christian Ministries and a member of the Orchard Community Initiative,
speaks at the community forum. Photo: David J. Hill

By DAVID J. HILL

Published April 12, 2013

UB and SUNY officials faced some tough, honest questions and comments about the new medical school project during a community forum Wednesday night for residents of Buffalo’s historic Fruit Belt neighborhood, one of the communities bordering the project site.

The meeting, held in the Gaylord Cary Conference Room at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, was organized by UB and the Orchard Community Initiative, a recently formed umbrella organization of Fruit Belt community advocacy groups. The public forum was part of an ongoing effort by UB to engage the community in conversation about the medical school project.

The forum gave residents a chance to ask questions and air some concerns they have about the project. Representatives from UB and the SUNY Construction Fund, which is managing the medical school project, were on hand.

About 40 people attended the meeting, including about two dozen residents of the Fruit Belt and McCarley Gardens housing complex. 

Residents wanted assurances from UB that the university will work with them at every step of the medical school project to ensure that the university’s expansion on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus (BNMC) directly benefits the community.

The medical school project is scheduled for groundbreaking this fall, with first classes being held in 2016. The new building at Main and High streets is expected to create approximately 3,000 construction jobs and more than 1,000 health care related positions, Laura Hubbard, UB vice president for finance and administration, told the audience.

Hubbard also highlighted how the project will benefit the community through:

  • Job growth, both during and after construction, particularly for minority- and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE).
  • Improving the region’s health by enhancing clinical, education and training opportunities, and by improving the quality of health care delivered for the community
  • Creating state-of-the-art health care that eliminates the need for Western New York patients to seek specialized care out of town
  • Improving the quality of life in neighborhoods near the BNMC by promoting home ownership in the community and by encouraging students, staff and faculty to patronize nearby businesses.

Some community members questioned the fate of McCarley Gardens, a 150-unit low-income housing complex within the borders of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Oak-Michigan Housing Development Corp., a not-for-profit housing development corporation sponsored by St. John Baptist Church, approached UB several years ago about selling the property to the university, which plans to use it for future development of incubator activities, support services and, ultimately, its health sciences schools.

As a contingency of the property sale, Oak-Michigan Housing Development Corp. first must provide alternative housing for current McCarley Gardens’ residents.  The sale will not be finalized until a relocation plan for the residents has been developed by Oak-Michigan Housing Development Corp and approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

“I’m not as interested in hearing as much about the different projects (UB) is developing. I want to know, what benefits are going to be for the residents and what are you going to do to empower the residents?” asked a resident of McCarley Gardens.

Hubbard noted that UB’s Opportunities Advisory Council, made up of representatives from UB, local business and local agencies, is charged with addressing that. The council was formed in 2010 as part of the UB 2020 strategic planning process to promote business engagement and career and job opportunities for local residents. “One of the goals of the council is to look at workforce development, and that’s an area that we chose to focus on this year,” she said, adding that the June opening of the new Educational Opportunity Center in the UB Downtown Gateway will bolster the university’s efforts.

While acknowledging residents’ concerns, UB officials stressed that the university will continue to engage the community in dialogue. “I like to think of designing a building project as a journey of sorts and we’re still in the middle of that journey,” Hubbard said.

“There are questions that we will ask, that others will ask, that we need to develop solutions to. Some of those questions have been asked and answered. Others are still in the works. What we want to do is have multiple touch points where we can give updates on where we are with the building and have some interaction around what that means and what your concerns are.”

Future meetings likely will address specific topics, such as workforce development, parking and transportation, and environmental concerns during actual construction.

Residents questioned UB officials about the work of the Economic Opportunity Panel (EOP), made up of representatives from UB and St. John Baptist Church. The EOP has been meeting regularly to develop recommendations for creating and improving job and educational opportunities for residents of neighborhoods bordering the BNMC.

One resident criticized UB for not including a Fruit Belt representative on the panel.

“How can you have these boards that are making decisions for our lifestyle, our existence, and not have a representative from our community that lives in the community?” she asked.

In response, Michael Pietkiewicz, UB assistant vice president for government and community relations, said the EOP’s purpose wasn’t to make any plans for the Fruit Belt neighborhood. “The purpose of the panel was to go out and speak to neighbors, economic development officials and workforce people, to get ideas for the university to understand better how this transaction can benefit you.”

Pietkiewicz said the panel soon will present UB and St. John Baptist Church with its recommendations for how the university, the church and institutions on the BNMC can provide access to jobs, training and new business opportunities to residents of McCarley Gardens and the Fruit Belt

Pietkiewicz added that residents are encouraged to contact his office with any questions they may have. “Our door’s open. We’ll continue to have conversations and we certainly appreciate the dialogue,” he said.