BUFFALO, NY — Months after the planned ribbon cutting was derailed by COVID-19, Local 71 of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation (SMART) workers formally unveiled its newly expanded 19,000 square foot training center.
“Sheet Metal Workers Local 71 committed to making the city of Buffalo our home in 2000,” said Paul Crist, Local 71 business manager. “Since then, we have worked, saved, and planned for this expansion, so we can continue our mission of training the next generation of sheet metal workers.”
Local 71 purchased the vacant, two-story, 7,200 square foot building next to its existing training center in 2014. The former manufacturing facility, which once housed Sweet Kleen Laundry, had deteriorated into a neighborhood eyesore after years of vacancy and neglect. With remediation and significant reconstruction needed on the structure, the local applied for and received an Empire State Development (ESD) grant of $377,000 from round seven of the Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) process. This grant funding allotment — considered “guaranteed capital” — was enough for the union to secure a loan to finance a significant portion of the project.
“The transformation of a previously vacant brownfield site into a modern training facility for the members of SMART Local 71 is not just a strategic investment that will strengthen Buffalo’s manufacturing sector, it also advances key goals for the broader New York State economy,” said Kevin Younis, ESD chief operating officer and executive deputy commissioner.
A brownfield site is defined by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as a property for which redevelopment or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous waste product, petroleum, pollutant, or contaminant.
“The state-of-the-art facility gives meaningful place-making purpose to an abandoned building and underutilized property in the city, and ensures current and future generations of SMART Local 71’s talented, hard-working workforce have the critical training and necessary skills in construction, sheet metal production, and metal fabrication to meet the demands of the industry,” Younis added.
The new training facility features a wide-open space that mimics a real construction site with the latest amenities. The local invested an additional $80,000 in new tools and equipment to round out the project.
“We’re going to be adding mock rooftop units,” Crist said. “Our members generally work in the air, out of lifts. This allows us to put them in the air to do their training. It’s something you can do easily when you’re standing on the ground, but when you’re on ladders and lifts, it gets a little more difficult.”
Anticipating more training sessions and more students, the union also acquired a third adjacent property to be used for additional parking. Local 71 typically has anywhere from 60 to 85 apprentices in its program.
The expansion has sparked community interest in the union and has received high praise from local and national government leaders. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul had kind words for the building’s transformation as well as the local.
“That title, SMART 71, really covers a lot of industries. But what’s really special is the transformation of this neighborhood,” Hochul said. “This building and block have been blighted for so long. It was haunting when you went by here to think about the former glory days.”
Now, she said, new apprentices will have their lives changed because of the skills they will learn in the transformed building.
Sheet metal apprentices receive college-accredited training in AutoCAD, air balancing, refrigeration/service, welding and heating, HVAC design, fabrication, and installation. While they are learning in the classroom, they are gaining skills on the job site including installation of architectural sheet metal, kitchen equipment, and duct for heating and air conditioning systems in residential and commercial buildings.
The goal is for apprentices to graduate with a college degree, zero college debt, and a career to last a lifetime. More than 14,000 apprentices participate in 148 training centers across the United States and Canada, learning curriculum and using the free training materials provided by the International Training Institute (ITI), the education arm of the unionized sheet metal, air conditioning, and welding industry.