County executive candidates debate work force readiness

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of four articles on a debate recently held by newspaper. Candidates were given a series of four questions on pressing issues facing Chautauqua County one week ahead of time, and were given the opportunity to provide their answers in a closed, debate-style setting. The fourth question deals with workforce readiness and what Chautauqua County government can do to improve it in the area.

Having jobs available in the area is a good thing, but are people ready to fill those positions?

The fourth and final debate question inquires from each candidate what the county can do to improve the readiness of the workforce in Chautauqua County.

GEORGE BORRELLO — “Leadership and Communication”

Borrello said improving the workforce in the area is related to leadership and communication. In his announcement for the county executive race, he proposed visiting 100 businesses and organizations in the first 100 days of his administration to get a grip on the business’ wants and needs.

“This is not just a dog and pony show where we’re going to walk in and do a photo op,” Borrello said. “We’re actually going to have a survey and we’re going to talk to these businesses and find out what their challenges are, what their assets are and what are their workforce needs. We want to know from these folks.”

Having that information in a data base would be very helpful, he said. In talking with other businesses already, Borrello said Chautauqua County has resources right now for workforce readiness that are not being fully utilized, such as the Chautauqua Education Coalition, Dream It Do It program, P-Tech, which is a technical education program, and the Workforce Investment Board.

Borrello said the Workforce Investment Board has a program called CAP where businesses are provided with a paid intern that does not cost the business anything. He has been told the program has a placement rate of 90 percent, Borrello said.

“Those are young people that are going to stay in our community because they have a job here,” he said. “We need to promote that more.”

Having a ready workforce also means having people who can pass a drug test and show up for work every day, which is the biggest challenges to businesses, Borrello said. Thus, it is important to address the drug epidemic.

There are jobs in Chautauqua County, but many are going unfilled because the workforce is not ready for them, Borrello said. He said one tool that could help with filling jobs is a possible website, ChautauquaJobs.org. The website will be an online board that will specifically feature Chautauqua County jobs for people looking to relocate here or find a different job in the area.

“We can actually create a real, static place where everybody knows they can go to find out that information,” Borrello said. “Because we’ll have that resource, people will have that confidence and more people will bring those things to that site and to that program.”

MIKE FERGUSON — “Government’s Talked Long Enough About Workforce”

“Leaders lead, leaders get action done,” Ferguson said. “We make things happen. I believe government’s talked long enough about workforce.”

Ferguson said the development of a database is a good idea, but manufacturers have told the county for years what they need from the workforce. The county has lost 27 percent of manufacturing companies and could lose more if something isn’t done. The addition of the drug problem is only making the workforce issues worse, he said.

Ferguson said the time for talking is over and action is necessary at this point.

“Like so many issues that have been partially addressed in the past, now it’s up to the government to take it head-on,” he said. “I believe it’s the local government’s responsibility to take it head-on.”

Funding programs like the Chautauqua Education Coalition is important, which couldn’t get enough money to introduce programs to every school in the county, Ferguson said. However, the county had money to fund “bicycle races and golf tournaments.”

It will also be important to sit with educational leaders and local colleges to develop curriculum that will help develop the necessary skill sets not just for today, but for the future, he said. The key to the future in Chautauqua County is in young people and in bringing them back to the area or keeping them in the county, Ferguson said. Making sure the younger people have a living wage that they can raise families on and can live a decent lifestyle with is another matter of importance.

“We look at the revitalization of downtown Buffalo, we look at the revitalization of Erie, Pa., we look at Baltimore and Cleveland that have all seen resurgence,” he said. “I realize those are big cities, but it was creative vision and the development of a workforce that not only did they redevelop their own workforce, but they are also bringing new people in from outside. New jobs and a strong workforce prevents people from leaving.”

Ferguson said there are about 1,100 people per year leaving Chautauqua County. Added up over the last 10 years, that’s a lot of people gone, he said.

“It’s time to bring people back and it’s time to introduce people to Chautauqua County and the assets it has,” Ferguson said. “We’ll rebuild the workforce by rolling up our sleeves, working with our educational departments, working with our workforce development people (and) putting the crunch on this pandemic problem we have with drugs. It can’t be done with cutting – it can only be done with growth and action.”

BORRELLO

Borrello said he doesn’t like to compare Chautauqua County to other areas like Buffalo or Erie, Pa. Rather, he said he would prefer to compare Chautauqua County to Traverse City in Michigan, which is similar to the Chautauqua County area because it is on a Great Lake, has a lot of agricultural history and is the cherry capital of the world.

The city is located in a state that has lost a lot of manufacturing and has a big tax burden, Borrello said. There is also a major urban center that gets a lot of the resources, he said.

“It sounds familiar to me,” Borrello said. “That’s the kind of place we have to model ourselves after.”

Traverse City has kept people there, he said. There are jobs, growth and assets are being used to do so.

Borrello said the biggest issue Chautauqua County has is the lack of “self-confidence.” The county is a beautiful place, that offers a lot of resources that should be used better.

Borrello said Buffalo has taken $1 billion and has turned it into $100 million of economic activity.

“Congratulations, you did a great job with that,” Borrello said. “We don’t have that billion dollars in our back pocket like they do. What we do have is tremendous natural assets that we are not marketing well enough across the country.”

The “Chautauqua Homecoming” program he has proposed is a marketing program that will help bring people that have a connection to the area back to Chautauqua County. The program would focus on people who have a summer home here, who grew up here, who have relatives here or any number of situations and would provide them with information on all the resources available in the county, the economic incentives to move back and comparisons on a variety of issues such as telecommuniting and the cost of living.

“These are the practical applications of real successes from other areas that we need to look at,” Borrello said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re doing enough of that, and as a part-time county legislator maintaining a full-time job, I wish I could address every idea that I’ve had, but now as the county executive, I would be able to dedicate myself full-time to doing this.”

FERGUSON

Ferguson said he is not “foolish enough” to believe that in four years, Chautauqua County will have the population of Erie, Pa. or Buffalo. However, he said it is the “creativity and the vision” that he is focusing on, including reusing old buildings. There are plenty of old buildings sitting empty in Chautauqua County, he said, that it would be good to revitalize them and use them to create an atmosphere for growth.

“I love when government says, ‘We need to create jobs,'” Ferguson said. “Government doesn’t create jobs. Government creates and atmosphere that is conducive for entrepreneurs and investors to invest. We have to create that atmosphere.”

Chautauqua County does not have the billion dollars that Buffalo has because the county doesn’t ask for it, he said. Instead, the county waits for it to come to them. It’s leadership that will go out and get those dollars, he said.

“It’s not coming to us. The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson said it is frustrating to see Dunkirk right in the middle of Erie, Pa. and Buffalo on Lake Erie while not growing at the same rate. Asheville, N.C., had a population similar to Dunkirk a few years ago, and yet, now it is a booming area even though no one had heard of it before.

“The city of Dunkirk has not been allowed to develop at the same pace that we’re seeing in other communities of similar size develop,” Ferguson said.

There is a good team of leadership in Dunkirk who are doing the best they can, but the city needs the county executive to come in an “push them over the goal line,” Ferguson said. He will do that for the whole county.

“As our cities rise, Ripley rises, Clymer rises, Forestville rises, Falconer rises, Lakewood rises and so much more,” he said. “We are a fantastic community and I agree, we have to believe in ourselves. I believe we can do that.”

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