GOWANDA - After nearly a decade, 25 separate funding sources, a plethora of grant application deadlines, negotiations, renegotiations and a flood, Academy Place is open.
Academy Place planners and supporters cut the ribbon Friday in front of the renovated multi-purpose facility, a more than $10 million project that is one-of-a-kind in New York. Spearheaded by the non-profit group Healthy Community Alliance, the former school building on Center Street has been made over into senior apartments, a community center, dining facility and commercial space. Elder residents of Academy Place, according to the facility's goals, will have a location that not only provides easy access to services and the community, but can also bring a healthy flow of people right to them.
State Assemblyman Joseph Giglio, who served as a political advocate for the project, congratulated the project organizers and admired their tenacity.
OBSERVER Photo by Tim Latshaw
Brandishing scissors, Irene Koch, left and Ruby Kempf present pieces of the freshly cut ribbon in front of Academy Place. The facility includes affordable senior housing, a community center and commercial space.
"I described this project as 'The Little Engine that Could' because no matter what obstacles were thrown at these folks, they never stopped; they never slowed down," Giglio said. "They never lost sight of their goal, and that was amazing to me because sometimes the obstacles seemed to be enormous and we couldn't get around them."
The difficulty of the long-term task was echoed by others who participated in it. Donald Gernatt of the Gernatt family of companies, who served on the Academy Place Advisory Council, said there were times he and others wondered how they were going to make things work.
"I know what a man on death row feels like," Gernatt said. "There were an awful lot of times there were deadlines and at the eleventh hour on this project the money came through and we got a reprieve. It really does prove what you can do when you put your mind to it."
Even the transfer of the building to the Healthy Community Alliance required a legal game of leap frog. The Gowanda Central School District had to move ownership of the former school to the town of Persia, who could then provide it to the project - all gift transactions. School Superintendent Charles Rinaldi pointed out that building projects such as this must often face strange hurdles.
"This doesn't happen automatically; this is hard to do," Rinaldi said. "Look at buildings around Route 20, moving into Silver Creek. Look at old buildings on Route 5 in Angola. This is not automatic. This is hard to do. People did it. Seniors have a win; the community has a win. There's a viable asset here now in Gowanda that otherwise wouldn't have happened."
Funding came from a number of federal, state and local sources, but the donation that brought the project to the point of viability came from the Seneca Nation of Indians, who donated more than $200,000. Richard Jemison, chairman of the Seneca Free Trade Association and another member of the Academy Place Advisory Council, recalled approaching the Tribal Council to request the funding and the reasons why it was approved.
Jemison said Academy Place appealed to the Seneca traditions of having multiple people live under one roof (i.e. longhouses) and showing respect to community elders. The school building also held significance to many members of the nation who had been educated there themselves.
"My mother went to school here - it was a high school in her day," Jemison said. "I went to school here when it was an elementary school. It was a good thing to not see this building just slowly deteriorate and become an eyesore, but rather become an asset."
Special acknowledgments were made to Ruby Kempf and Irene Koch, who were with the project from the very beginning, as well as construction representative George Stark and former CEO of Healthy Community Alliance Patricia Kota. Current HCA executive director Sharon Mathe will be honored by the planting of an oak tree on the grounds and Erie County also declared Friday "Academy Place Day."
Construction on Academy Place began in October 2008. The first tenants moved into the facility's apartment complex in July.