By Mark Sommer / News Staff Reporter
The future of the former Millard Fillmore Gates Hospital once again is a question mark, after plans to create a veterinary teaching hospital were pronounced dead Friday.
The breakdown followed year-long negotiations between Chason Affinity Cos., which announced the $65 million veterinary school project in August 2012, and Devry Institute, a private, for-profit educational organization that operates the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in the Caribbean.
Kaleida Health, which owns the empty hospital, said a request for proposals will be reissued Wednesday to determine interest in developing the nearly 10-acre site that closed March 2012.
The original process, which included a $1 million award to the winning entry, took eight months before Chason Affinity was selected as designated developer.
“We, as a community, had a wonderful opportunity to bring an exciting project to Buffalo and Western New York. And that was a fully functioning veterinary school,” Kaleida’s President and CEO James R. Kaskie said in a statement.
“But now we must move on, regroup and start an expedited process to award the development rights to a qualified developer.”
A statement from Chason Affinity said the company worked “diligently” to advance its veterinary school proposal and was “disappointed” by Kaleida’s decision to end the agreement after Ross backed out. The company said it is working on another project related to the veterinary field and would explore prospects for it elsewhere in Buffalo.
An executive with Uniland Development, the runner-up a year ago, said the company may throw its hat in the ring a second time.
“The first go-around excited us, and we were certainly disappointed when we were not chosen. Since then we have been working on several other projects, so we are going to have to reassess our capacity and willingness to ramp up again and take a go at this,” said Carl Montante Jr., Uniland’s vice president of strategic initiatives.
Uniland had proposed a six-story apartment building, two-story townhouses, underground parking, boutique hotel and office and retail space.
Two other firms responded to Kaleida’s proposal last year, but the eight-member jury that judged the contest deemed only the Chason Affinity and Uniland proposals as viable. Kaleida’s board of directors made the final decision.
The site, located on scenic Gates Circle, has significant drawbacks.
Chason Affinity estimated demolition of the existing buildings would cost more than $12 million. The parcels are also considered brownfields, with steep environmental cleanup costs involved.
Retrofitting existing buildings for condominiums or office and retail space also carry a hefty price tag.
Howard Zemsky, co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, said he remains optimistic that the former hospital will be put to good use.
“I still think the site has a lot of potential,” he said.
Zemsky said he was struck by the idea of a veterinary school in Buffalo and regretted that it won’t be coming.
“We were excited about the prospect of hundreds of jobs locating to Buffalo from out of the state, and of a veterinary industry in Buffalo. It seemed to have a nice symmetry about it,” Zemsky said.
Zemsky said he met several times with Chason Affinity and Ross University officials to re-enforce the importance Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo placed on the project.
“We wanted them to know that if this deal advanced internally and they were really ready to roll up their sleeves and discuss the economics, we would let them know the governor’s economic development team would be keenly interested in doing what it could to help make it happen,” Zemsky said, noting things never got to that point.
The idea of a new veterinary school was seen as an out-of-the-box choice at the time of its announcement. But there were also concerns within the veterinary community that – with three new veterinary colleges and expansions at several others – a glut of graduates was being created who would face low pay, difficult job prospects and a mountain of debt.
But that plan evolved into a clinical hospital for an already existing university, which sought to consolidate students for clinical experience with small animals onto one campus. Experience with large animals would still have required the students to attend other campuses.
The plan also called for partnering with the SPCA Serving Erie County, which would have opened a small-animal hospital at the former Gates campus. Medaille College’s veterinary technology program was additionally expected to take advantage of educational and training opportunities.
Ross University provides an intensive three-year program, with fall, spring and summer sessions. Students pay $250,600 for two years of coursework, one year of clinical study and the three combined years of room, board and related expenses, according to the school’s financial aid office, ranking the well-regarded veterinary college among the most expensive.