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Ground broken on new Seneca-Babcock Community Center

Michael Mroziak, WBFO

Work is set to begin on the new Seneca-Babcock Community Center on Harrison Street in Buffalo. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on the site of the future  12,600 square-foot facility. Among those present for the ceremony were donors and elected officials who recalled the role the community center played in their own lives.

The $4.5 million project is expected to be completed in 10 to 12 months. When it opens, the new Seneca-Babcock Community Center will include a gym, locker rooms, classrooms and computer lab. The larger space, explained said Seneca Babcock Community Center executive director Brian Pilarski, will allow his organization to expand services.

"We're able to expand our workforce development," Pilarski said. "We're keeping our current facility open at 1168 Seneca Street. We're expanding that and our child care services and expanding our workforce development program. Currently we do not have a child care service, and it goes hand-in-hand with our workforce development program, where these young adults have a place to send their child while they're gaining the skills and the training necessary to become employable."

The process began seven years ago, it was explained, when Dan Alexander introduced himself to the center's management and suggested it needed a new gymnasium.

"At the time, he said let's build a gym right on the side of the building. We'll build it out to the left," said Pilarski. "I was excited, called my board of directors, told them, we were happy. He left the building, comes back about an hour or two later. I'm thinking he changed his mind and I'm a little nervous."

Instead, Pilarski recalled, Alexander told him that after touring the neighborhood, he decided they needed more than just a gym.

Alexander, a former Buffalo firefighter who went on to found the Finger Lakes Bone & Joint Center in the Rochester region, grew up in the area of Fillmore Avenue and Oneida Street with now Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw. Although they lived blocks away, Alexander said, the Seneca-Babcock neighborhood proved to be highly influential in their lives.

"We used to catch a train... illegally. We used to hop trains to get here," he said. "We had railroad tracks from across our houses and the Boys and Girls Clubs, at the time, and the Seneca-Babcock Community Center was about a mile away. We spent our whole childhood here and it was very formative."

Dr. Alexander says the center, for decades, given many young people the "tools to succeed." He, along with his wife Gail, donated one million dollars to build a new community center. So, too, did businessman Roger Hungerford. The City of Buffalo spent $600,000 to remediate the site where the future community center will be constructed. 

Mychajliw, who led the ceremony, praised Mayor Byron Brown for the city's assistance.

"From day one, the city made a huge investment - along with Councilman (Richard) Fontana, this is his district and he provided it as well - but Mayor Brown is the one that delivered to make sure this project could get off the ground."

But Brown turned the praise toward Alexander and his advocacy for the neighborhood.

"For the last six months, I have probably heard from Dr. Alexander every single week," Brown said, generating some laughs. "He is passionate about this project and passionate about this community."

Pilarski pointed out that the construction announced Tuesday is only the first phase for the new community center. A second phase, which he hopes can get underway soon after completion of phase one, would see the transfer of their senior services to the new building, as well as construction of a cafeteria and kitchen.

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.