We’re still not at ease with backup plan

OBSERVER Photo Work continues at the site of the Athenex project, which is located off Route 5 to the east of Dunkirk.

It was supposed to be New York state’s greatest Christmas gift to Dunkirk and northern Chautauqua County. But five years later, it is — quite possibly — the city’s largest piece of coal in its stocking.

How ironic. For decades, our region relied on that coal-fired power plant for high-paying jobs and a significant chunk of change in terms of tax revenue.

Dec. 15, 2013, appeared to have all the makings of a storybook day for the county’s queen city. Snow had fallen offering a picturesque scene at the lakefront. Hundreds lined Lake Shore Drive East at the Clarion Hotel Marina and Conference Center, which was hosting state Gov. Andrew Cuomo for the momentous occasion.

His presence filled the facility’s Bayside Ballroom — at least 500 packed into the spacious area. And when Cuomo officially announced the repowering of the NRG plant from coal to natural gas, the applause was tremendous.

On that day it seemed as though nothing could stop the repowering, which would keep the huge facility operating through 2029.

But rumblings came from Oswego on Lake Ontario, where two competing power providers took issue with the NRG plan. They even named it in a lawsuit filed.

NRG backed off. Momentum was lost.

To the governor’s credit, he realized the life preserver offered to Dunkirk was sinking. Instead of shrugging his shoulders and moving on, he struck a deal.

Before that February 2016 gathering at the city high school, Athenex was anonymous. Today, to the east of the city border, it appears to be one of the few hopes many local officials have regarding our future.

Construction continues as the steel beams are in place on the property off Route 5, but plenty of questions and concerns remain regarding the operation. Those issues began with former County Executive Vince Horrigan: will this region be ready for the Athenex effect?

Almost three years laters, we still do not know.

Educationally, Jamestown Community College and the Board of Cooperative Educational Services have worked with Athenex officials to have students learn a skill set needed for the facility. Local school districts, including Dunkirk and Forestville, have had high school students tour the Buffalo headquarters of Athenex within the last year.

It is a subtle reminder to those who are growing up here that there is a reason to come home — and that jobs are expected to be in demand for the town of Dunkirk location.

Housing appears to be another dilemma. It has led to the effort to build the Battery Park Villas, located just across the street from the new manufacturing facility.

Our largest obstacle, however, is something that might be the toughest to change. It is a mindset.

For five decades, we have become overwhelmed with bad economic news. Consider this decade alone, our region has lost some 800-plus jobs with the closing of Carriage House, Petri Cookies as well as cutbacks in our health-care sectors.

That takes a toll on a community’s psyche — and makes it even tougher to accept that Athenex is here and could even get bigger.

Cuomo’s 2013 NRG announcement, which never materialized, was an easier option for us locals to accept. That power plant had been part of the community for 70-plus years. Jobs were there — and the landscape would not be changing all that greatly.

Athenex, for all intents and purposes, is exciting but also offers a dose of anxiety. Where will the workers come from? Will they live here?

Nearly half of the equation in the building of the structure — for the biopharmaceutical company dedicated to the discovery, development and commercialization of novel therapies for the treatment of cancer — is in motion. What comes next could be even more impressive than that of a repowered NRG.

There is the possibility of additional development along the Route 5 corridor — from the city’s waterfront all the way to Silver Creek. That is an exciting opportunity.

But what is our community mindset? Do we continue to scoff or doubt a reality that is actually happening? Or, do we do something that may be uncomfortable and out of character?

Just simply believe.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.

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