In a protest movement that’s strictly from hunger, Nassau Community College’s students can almost taste victory. But that elusive fast-food hamburger, which they insist is worth fighting for, may still be beyond their grasp.
Since January 1998, the NCC food court in the College Center Building (think of it as a Student Union, even though they don’t want you to call it that) has sat unfinished. Students on the East Garden City campus walk past it and shake their heads in disgust, knowing that with a little help from Nassau County politicians, they could be eating brand-name fast food and lounging in a campus center instead of dispersing through the clogged streets of central Nassau for lunch.
The GOP machine has been holding the food court hostage, trying to pry loose one of the 20,000-student college’s two currently overburdened cafeterias so it can build a gym for the nearby county police academy, according to some student government leaders.
So, earlier this year, the students sought help from the Nassau Legislature’s puny Democratic minority, and it vowed to help the students. Now that the Democrats have seized control, however, the students are being told that they’re going to have to wait in line like everyone else who wants the new regime to fix things.
The protest reached a crescendo two weeks ago, when the Student Government Association held a press conference at the Supreme Court Building in Mineola, where they displayed more than 9,000 postcards filled out by students who said they wanted their food court. Student leaders told their hungry followers that a vote for the Democrats on Nov. 2 might, for instance, help bring Burger King to campus.
Like everyone else, now the students are claiming some credit for the defeat of the county’s century-old GOP machine. “I assume it had some effect,” says Student Trustee Alan Bonilla, 22, a business marketing major from West Hempstead. “We were telling people, ‘Go vote.’ If students did, it might have had something to do with it.”
The recent election is just the latest chapter in NCC’s struggle to get more than just desserts. In 1989, the school developed the plan for the food court on the ground floor of the College Center Building. The space would seat more than 500 people and was meant to house joints like Sbarro, Taco Bell and other intestinal-bombardment food outlets. The county approved the $46 million plan and Manschel Construction began work on the building in 1985.
But construction costs for the building went $26 million over budget. While a large multi-purpose room and offices for student government and the college newspaper were completed, the food court was abandoned.
In 1995, when the county Board of Supervisors was replaced by a 19-member County Legislature, the students and administration felt they were being abandoned: Majority leader Bruce Blakeman told them that the food court was a wonderful idea but that the county had no money to finish the job.
“The state has said, ‘We’ll put up 50 percent if the county puts up 50 percent,” says Reginald Tuggle, director of college relations. “At Nassau Community College, in all capital expenses, the state puts up half and the county puts up half.” Tuggle says recent estimates place the entire project, which would include putting in a kitchen, vendor space, seats and amenities, at $3.8 million.
Instead of putting up the money, the county advised the college to try to get outside food vendors to come in and finish the building. But no company wanted to take the risk of completing the construction of a building—which would include the expense of finishing the floor and providing seating—on top of the capital it would take to set up kitchens and counter space.
Student government leaders say the county was waving the greasy spoons in front of the students’ noses as a bargaining chip. “The legislators wanted the old cafeteria so they could build a gym for the police academy,” says Student President Sergio Argueta, 21, a criminal-justice major from Uniondale. “You can’t hand over one of two cafeterias serving 20,000 people. They weren’t willing to fund it unless they got that building.”
The SGA is juiced that the victorious Dems, who now have a slim majority in the legislature, will give them their food court. But student leaders are basing that on a meeting Bonilla had with Democratic legislative leader Judy Jacobs three weeks ago. “She said we have 400 percent support, but ‘it might not mean much cause we’re in the minority,'” says Bonilla. “I feel she was genuine. I didn’t think it’s going to be a problem that she’s going to renege on that.”
Now that Jacobs is in the majority, however, the talk has gone from “we’d like to help you, but we don’t have the power,” to “we’d like to help you, but we have to fix other things first.” When asked how high the food court was on her list of priorities, Jacobs tells the Long Island Voice, “Right now, this county is financially strapped.”
Jacobs says that she wants the students to get their food court but that she must look into the project to understand what went wrong. “I think there was no question that everyone supported the food court,” Jacobs declares. “It’s like apple pie and motherhood.”
Instead of committing to completion of the food court, she wants to throw the kids a smaller bone. “There are things I believe can be done to make it an inviting place,” she says. “I think the students would be happy with some vending machines and a place for them to gather. I would certainly be open to that. If the food court is not going to be self-sustaining, we can’t do it.”
“We go to the campus deli, and it’s five bucks for a sandwich,” Argueta complains. “We go downstairs, and you get hamburgers with soggy bread and brown lettuce for four dollars.” And going off campus to, say, nearby Hempstead Turnpike, has its downside. “At lunch time,” he says, “there are massive movements to head out to McDonald’s and Burger King. The students come back and can’t get their parking spaces and are late to class.”
Currently, three small clusters of food services plus vending machines serve the entire campus. And even NCC administrators say vending machines won’t cut it. They contend that the college is getting no respect. “Nassau Community College feeds more students to four-year institutions than any other college in New York,” Tuggle points out.