New training program seeks to bolster building trade ranks

A new city initiative designed to recruit more people from low-income and minority neighborhoods to work in the construction trades is slowly adding to the ranks of the region's union apprentices.

The new Pre-Apprentice Training Program was created as part of a "project labor agreement" that the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. signed in June with the Buffalo Building and Construction Trades Council to support the Northland Corridor project on the city's East Side.

It allows for up to 20 participants in an eight-week paid training program, designed for individuals interested in working in construction. It's open to people from the Northland zip code – 14211 – and surrounding areas, with an eye toward encouraging more minority participation in the construction workforce.

The purpose of the initiative is to give participants easier access to the highly selective three- to five-year union apprentice programs, such as for carpenters, plasterers or laborers. That's often the key to getting construction work in the Buffalo Niagara region.

Officials promoted the new program through churches, community groups and the Buffalo Employment & Training Center, and the city received 187 applications.

The first class of five graduated on Oct. 30, after receiving hands-on training from a journeyman painter for eight weeks, mostly at City Hall. Students also take a class at a union hall, and are exposed to a broad range of trades. Upon completion of the program, those participants can apply to any of the participating trade unions to join their formal apprentice program.

One of the first students has now advanced even further, gaining direct entry to the Carpenters union as an employee of Thurman Thomas' 3480 Group, working at Northland. Another was able to skip the training program entirely because he already had flooring experience that the Carpenters union needed for a job at Clarence High School.

"That's what we wanted to see," said Anna Falicov, the city's assistant corporation counsel, who is helping to coordinate the program, and reported the results to the BUDC board on Tuesday. "We didn't have a commitment that the participants would end up at Northland, but that's what we hoped would happen."

A second class of six is now working with journeymen from the plasterers and carpenters unions, while officials are interviewing this week for a third group of students that will start in January.

"They're all participating. They're all showing up," Falicov said of the students. "They're really committed to this work."

She said the city will continue until it reaches the target of 20. "Our goal is to get as many individuals as possible into union programs," she said.

Under the $60 million Northland Belt Line Corridor project, the city is transforming 35 acres of longtime manufacturing properties into a light industrial business and economic development hub to spur job growth and investment in struggling neighborhoods. It will be anchored by the Western New York Workforce Training Center, which will be located at a former factory at 683 Northland Avenue that is now being renovated.

The labor agreement also included a "community workforce agreement" that set high goals for employing minorities, women, city residents and apprentices on the Northland project: 25 percent minority participation, 5 percent female, 30 percent city residents and 20 percent apprentices.

As of now, BUDC reported Tuesday, minority businesses represent 28 percent of the project, while women-owned businesses comprise 5.5 percent.

"The results are really good," said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, a BUDC board member and CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership business group.

Meanwhile, work continues at the Northland site under Gilbane Building Co., with demolition of the main plant at 537 East Delavan Avenue completed and demolition of the first phase at 683 Northland mostly done. Interior asbestos and other abatement is also largely finished, while crews are now working on the windows, roof decking, structural steel, exterior masonry repairs, and plumbing. Construction of the Workforce Training Center is slated to finish by July 20.

As part of the Northland project, the BUDC Board approved a $109,030 contract with Watts Architecture & Engineering to prepare schematic design documents for the 41,000-square-foot former Eastern Plant Building of the Houdaille Factory Complex at 537 East Delavan.

Built in 1940, it will be completely renovated at a cost of $6.5 million to $7 million, including the core and shell, new floors, windows and a new entry. The work, which should be completed by the end of 2019, will be funded in part with $1 million in Restore NY grant money.

Stebbins said a local social enterprise is considering a food and wellness venture for the building, but in the meantime, he said, "we own the building. We have to tighten it up and secure some type of future rental."

Additionally, work is also progressing at another 15,000-square-foot building, 612 Northland, which is slated to become a small business center. The non-hazardous demolition is completed, as is half of the roof work.

To advance the project, the BUDC board approved a $163,515 architectural improvements contract with Niagara Construction Co. Inc. to design restrooms, two conference rooms and entry doors.

The board also approved a $44,000 contract with Pepe Construction Services LLC for masonry restoration work, including removal and repair of the brick on all four floors, reducing the height of the chimney, repairing the cornice on the west side, and filling in with glass block in certain places.

"We're slowly getting things done for that project," said BUDC Vice President David Stebbins. "By May, the space should be ready for leasing."