Savarino Companies

Academy Place's $10.2M Project Underway

The Observer


Gowanda - Even with what looked like the Fort Knox of golden-colored shovels, there still weren't enough for all of the main players who helped bring the Academy Place project to its construction phase.

After roughly a decade since the project's conception and $10.2 million of fundraising, proponents of the Academy Place project, centered with the Healthy Community Alliance (HCA), held a groundbreaking ceremony outside the former Center Street School. Work will begin on the project with a scheduled completion date of December 2009.

Plans for the former school building are far-reaching, with the intentions of creating 32 units of affordable senior housing, a community center, space for commercial and organizational use and daycare for up to 76 children and 12 adults. Just as far-reaching has been the support garnered over time for the project, ranging from federal and state grants to contributions from local organizations and the Seneca Nation of Indians.

It is the number of individual organizations and businesses connected to the project that Academy Place officials consider a main reason for its viability.

"When we finally made this transition - I think it was about 2001 when we finally decided what we wanted to grow up to be as a project - we didn't really have any entity in the community that had the resources to make a project like this work," said Michael Hutchinson, a member of the Academy Place Advisory Council. "And really, as a community, how do you do a $10 million project in a community that doesn't have real estate appreciation as a driver? It was a drawback, but we overcame it because of the folks who were involved with this project."

Governmental help was sought early in the project, with HCA Executive Director Sharon Mathe noting that a significant amount of time was spent the past 10 years in the offices of State Sen. Catharine Young and Assemblyman Joe Giglio. The support of the two representatives, as well as that of Sen. Hillary Clinton and others, was accredited at the groundbreaking.

Assemblyman Giglio, who calls Gowanda his hometown, called the Academy Place project a "testament to people who care."

"The only thing i could think of through all of this is this is sort of like 'the little engine that could,'" he said. "No matter what obstacle you threw in their way, these guys and ladies went through it, around it, above it; they were amazing. And as I sat there and watched I kept saying in prayer every night, 'God, I hope they make it' and they did."

Sen. Young also expressed respect at how adamantly the project was pursued.

"I have to commend them and the board and everybody who worked so hard on this, because (this building) very well could be, as we know, a white elephant in this community; an albatross around our necks - no use for it," she said. "And the people who got involved in this project did not see a problem; they saw a solution. ... And so what they did was they rolled up their sleeves and they started the hard work."

In addition to granting and endorsing some financial support, the local boards of the village of Gowanda and town of Persia, as well as the board of the Gowanda Central School District, had to conduct a legal dance of sorts in order to properly grant ownership of the former school building from the school district to the project. That transfer was finally completed this month.

"Our local governments have worked with each other and along with other community agencies who have also been able to contribute," Gowanda Mayor Richard Klancer said. "I believe that Academy Place is on a scale that other communities will strive to achieve."

Gowanda School Superintendent Charles Rinaldi also expressed his happiness with the forward motion of the project as did school board president Ann Martindale, who herself was a graduate of the former school.

"This building has much history in our community," she said. "Many residents look forward to calling it home; another chapter in the life of this building."

Persia Supervisor Melvin Lebar spoke favorably of the town board's support of the project, but especially that of late member Kenneth Strohmeyer, who passed away earlier this year.

"As a member of the original planning board for this project, he was very dedicated to it," Lebar said. "Unfortunately, he passed away not too long ago, but i'm sure he's looking down on us today with a smile on his face."

A number of other speakers filed through at the groundbreaking, representing crucial sources of funding and support including Gov. David Paterson's office; Empire State Development, which was responsible for a $1.5 million Restore NY grant and the state Division of Housing and Community Renewal, which was responsible for $850,000 in funding and the reservation of low income housing tax credits worth $5.1 million in equity.

These tax credits were purchased by Key Bank through a community development program, providing more than half of the project's funding.

"We're going to be an owner around here for a long time and we're going to leave this to you guys," said Joseph Eicheldinger, Sr. Relations Manager of Community Deveopment Banking for Key Bank, "and we're sure this is going to be a stellar project."

Savarino Companies is serving as general contractor for the project. BHN&T is the architectural firm and Oxford Consulting, Inc. is the developmental consultant.

At the beginning, the Academy Place project was estimated at around $7 million. Over time, the total has risen with not only the addition of services, but rising costs of resources in an increasingly shaky economy. But after 10 years, no one involved with the project seems willing to drop the momentum.

"It's a time of economic turmoil in our market, on Wall Street, and here we take off on a $10 million project," Hutchinson said. "But it's gonna happen; it's gonna be successful because no matter what happens in Albany or Washington or Wall Street, taking care of people, taking care of each other, senior housing, a better life for the developmentally disabled; the products and services the HCA provides is never going to go out of fashion and it's never going to grow old. People are never going to give up on each other and that's why this is a successful project."

Tim Latshaw


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