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New stadium talks prompt questions about SUNY Erie's South Campus

With enrollment dropping at the college's Orchard Park campus, the interim president is set to announce a realignment study.

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The south campus of SUNY Erie has a noisy neighbor down the street, Highmark Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills.

But team ownership wants a new stadium, and it wants it across Abbott Road, which could make the football club a next-door neighbor. That has prompted some talk among students.

Ryan Riyashi, a second-year nursing student from Lackawanna, says, “I heard some people saying they might just take down the whole campus down.”

Interim SUNY Erie President William Reuter wants to put the brakes on such speculation.

“We are not privy to any discussions, have no knowledge of what the plans are so far as the Buffalo Bills are concerned,” Reuter said.

This is Reuter’s second stint at the college. He left in 2017 and returned last year to tackle the school’s troubling finances.

“We’re in a situation where we’re spending more than we are receiving in revenues,” Reuter said.

The core of the problem is declining enrollment. Reuter says in the last decade the college’s student population has dropped by about half. Because 80% of SUNY Erie’s revenue is tuition and fees paid by students, Reuter has had to institute restrictions.

Two rounds of early retirement incentives, layoffs, and a hiring freeze has reduced staff by 11.5%. A further reduction of staff is anticipated.

More drastic action would have been necessary, Reuter says, “if not for approximately $28 million in stimulus money from the federal, state and county governments.”

Minus that financial aid to the college, Reuter says he would have been forced to close one of the college three campuses, and there is reason to believe the south campus in Orchard Park would have been most vulnerable.

The south campus has suffered the largest enrollment loss. Just 22% of the college students now attend classes at the south campus. The city campus in downtown Buffalo has 28% of the college’s students; 50% of the students are enrolled at the north campus in Williamsville.

At the south campus, the book store and cafeteria have been closed. A recently submitted architectural and engineering review of all college structures recommended that $20 million could be saved if two of the seven south campus buildings were decommissioned.

With the closures, the review estimates the south campus will still need $45.7 million in maintenance and repairs in the next 10 years.

As a potential solution at the south campus, the review also recommends moving most academic programs out and bringing in the college’s police academy and the rest of its law enforcement and first responder training courses. That plus the college’s entire finance, human resources and IT department currently at the campus could, in theory, stabilize the situation.

Decisions about SUNY Erie’s future will come soon.

Reuter tells 2 On Your Side he will soon announce a six-month “strategic academic realignment.” The college’s interim president has convinced more than a half-dozen foundations to give the college a total in excess of $250,000 to review data and develop recommendations.

The recommendations will drive decisions, Reuter says, “to see what programs make sense for what campus and what programs may not make sense any longer.”  

Reuter adds, “We will let academic decisions drive facility decisions.”

Not a factor, Reuter says, is the chatter about where a new Bills stadium might go.

Like the Bills, SUNY Erie is functionally a tenant of Erie County government. The college runs the programs and has use of campus ground and buildings, but they are the property of the county.

2 On Your Side submitted a question by email asked County Executive Mark Poloncarz asking whether he could envision the south campus continuing to operate if the new stadium was built next door.

Poloncarz's press secretary, Peter Anderson, responded by saying, “There is no correlation to wherever the new stadium goes and the issues at SUNY Erie. They are separate issues and will be decided separately.”