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$44 million job training center coming to Buffalo's East Side neighborhood

by chocieni
Thu, Jul 16th 2015 09:40 am


Buffalo News

July 16, 2015 - Jonathan Epstein

$44 million job training center coming to Buffalo's East Side neighborhood

Facility to train locals for new area jobs

Residents of Buffalo's East Side have been hearing for a while about new job opportunities locally in advanced manufacturing, electrical and solar energy.

Now they'll be able to get trained in the skills needed to qualify for those jobs, without having to leave their neighborhood.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Wednesday formally announced plans for a new $44 million job training center in a hulking former manufacturing facility on Northland Avenue, as part of his Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.

"Here in Buffalo, we are creating so many jobs that we need to make sure we have the people to fill them," Cuomo said. "And it's not just a question of having bodies anymore. You need to know and have the skill sets to fill those jobs. And this is about developing the skills for an entirely new workforce."

The new Western New York Workforce Development Center, funded with $29 million in Buffalo Billion money and another $15 million from the New York Power Authority, will focus on helping local residents develop the skills to work in the region's newest light manufacturing factories. And it will work with specific employers to train workers for specific jobs.

That includes the sprawling solar-panel-making operation - slated to be the world's largest such production facility - that is under construction for Elon Musk's SolarCity at the Riverbend site in South Buffalo.

Such workforce development efforts are designed to create a diversified pool of highly skilled workers capable of handling work in modern electric utilities and manufacturers. The goal is to ensure that there are enough trained workers to fill the new jobs that are being created, as well as to replace all the manufacturing and electrical utility workers that are expected to retire in the coming years.

In fact, officials cited new labor statistics that show 13,000 private-sector jobs were created in the Buffalo-Niagara region from May 2014 to May 2015, an increase of 2.8 percent, which is not only more than the state average but also faster growth than New York City.

"We have this wonderful turnaround, all these wonderful new jobs that are being created in this community, but if we don't have the people who are willing and able to work in the jobs, because they don't have the skills, it really won't matter," County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said.

At the same time, officials want to broaden the benefits of the state's economic development efforts throughout the Buffalo area, including its lower-income and working-class neighborhoods, such as those surrounding the Northland site.

"As economic growth and opportunity increases in Buffalo, we must continue to focus on ways to connect city residents to the jobs of the future, and the new workforce development center on Buffalo's East Side will do just that," Mayor Byron W. Brown said.

That's been a source of criticism with past economic development efforts, and Cuomo said he didn't want to repeat those mistakes.

"We want Buffalo to do well. We want to create a lot of jobs in Buffalo. But we want all of Buffalo to do well," the governor said. "In the new Buffalo, there is opportunity for everyone, everywhere, and today's announcement is a monument to that vision. With the new Buffalo, everyone has a seat at the table."

Neighbors of the Northland plant expressed cautious optimism over the prospect of additional training and potential jobs.

Northland resident Tiffany Jones is unemployed and looking for work. She said that not only would she be interested in the training program, but it would also help out her 20-year-old son.

"This would give young black men a chance, an opportunity to work around here," she said. "If there are going to be jobs in walking distance, I say go for it."

The new training center will be run by a consortium of state agencies and companies, including the power authority and Empire State Development, as well as the New York State Research and Development Authority, New York State Electric and Gas Corp., National Grid and Rochester Gas & Electric Corp. Training will be developed by the state Labor Department and community colleges, including Erie Community College.

Specifics are still to be worked out, including business planning and how the training program will be designed and administered, but all have signed an agreement outlining their respective roles and support.

The facility will occupy 100,000 square feet of a larger 246,902-square-foot complex at 683 Northland, just west of the Kensington Expressway. It will include the 40,000-square-foot front building, a brick structure on Northland, as well as some portion of the rear buildings, still to be determined. The rest of the buildings and property would be separated from the training facility, and leased out, officials of the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. said.

The site is the former home of Niagara Machine & Tool Works, later Clearing Niagara, which operated for more than a century at the sprawling industrial property.

Carrie Kirk has lived by the closed Northland factory area since the 1960s, and currently resides on Cambridge Street. The greatest benefit of new manufacturing jobs, she said, would be that employees would be able to care for their families.

"I take public transportation a lot, and I always hear people talk about working multiple jobs," she said. "With this, maybe they wouldn't have to do that anymore."

She added that just seeing people working and training at the facilities would be a morale boost for the community. But first she wants to see Cuomo and the city follow through with the plans. "I hope these aren't just promises, and they actually help the community," she said.

The job-training venture, which is expected to be opened by the third quarter of 2017, will include two separate operations located together, an Advanced Manufacturing Training Center and a Utility of the Future and Clean Energy Training Center.

Manufacturing, historically the dominant economic engine in Buffalo, remains the third-largest industry sector in the region, with more than 50,000 employees and $6.3 billion in gross regional product. But experts project nearly 17,000 job openings in Western New York's manufacturing companies by 2020, because of retirement and growth, and many current workers lack the skills needed to meet the demands of today's jobs. That's where the Advanced Manufacturing operation comes in.

The energy-training piece, funded from the power authority's budget and the utilities, will focus on the training, recruiting and retention needs of the electricity industry, where 30 percent of current utility workers will be eligible for retirement in the next five to 10 years.

"We're hitting a cliff on electrical workers, and nowadays you really need to know what you're talking about when you're working on the power grid, because it's more sophisticated," Cuomo said.

The training initiative is an anchor component of the larger Northland Avenue Belt Line Corridor Business Park, a 50-acre complex designed to serve as an economic development hub centered around light manufacturing.

It's similar to the state's other Buffalo Billion ventures in downtown and South Buffalo, with so-called "hubs" around solar or clean energy, computer technology and biotechnology. All are geared to attract significant private investment and job creation by companies in those fields, to spur the regional economy.

Located along a railroad line, originally known as the New York Central Beltline, the Northland area was initially developed as a manufacturing center more than a century ago, and is still one of the most extensive industrial areas in size and density on the city's East Side.

Brown suggested the East Side location for the new hub, and secured the endorsement of Cuomo, who last September allocated $6.7 million in Buffalo Billion funds through Empire State Development Corp. so that the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. could acquire a dozen parcels of vacant and underutilized industrial land.