Ferguson keeps great expectations

OBSERVER Photo Mike Ferguson changed the complexion of minor league baseball in Jamestown in the 1990s.

Like teamwork on July 9, Mike Ferguson and George Borrello worked the serving lines for the Dunkirk-Fredonia Rotary Fly-In breakfast. Both candidates for Chautauqua County executive helped dish out food with some 35 other club members to the more than 1,200 who attended the event.

At times, both worked up a sweat. If you have ever been to the fly-In breakfast, you know the sunshine and warm temperatures are your friend. It brings in more people. When it rains, the lines are drastically shorter.

But on this morning, it was evident Ferguson had the easier chore as he was paired with his campaign manager Daniel Whitcher. Nobody in line was ever waiting for the sausage. There was always plenty, thanks to longtime sausage griller and Rotarian John Carney.

It was not the case for Borrello, who ran out of pancakes on more than one occasion as the cooks could not keep up, causing the line to slow even more.

This is not an endorsement for either menu item or candidate. It’s just food for thought as election day inches closer — only 53 days away.

Borrello’s entry into the race before he announced as the Republican candidate in Silver Creek in April was almost a given. Since 2009, he has been a visible figure in Chautauqua County government as a legislator and through the Regional Solutions Commission.Ferguson, however, has taken a different path as the Democratic candidate. A county resident of 30 years, he was general manager of the Jamestown Jammers baseball club before moving on to running the Buffalo Blizzard and Wichita, Kan., Wings soccer organizations.

“Fredonia and Chautauqua County has always been my home,” he said in an interview this week. “I’ve fallen in love with it.”

Though never elected, Ferguson believes he can step in to the top county post due to past experiences of running professional sporting teams and arenas and working with elected officials and government. During his time with the Jammers as general manager, he became a master marketer almost out of necessity.

At the time, the Jammers’ future was cloudy. It had been purchased by the Rich family, who also owned the Bisons, in 1993. It also marked the beginning of a tough time for Major League Baseball. The pros went on strike in the summer of 1994, souring fans but adding to the appeal of the minor leagues.

The Jammers and Ferguson took advantage of the opportunity. “We came up with promotions that had never been done before at minor-league stadiums,” he said, noting the Jamestown team at the time had set club records for season-ticket sales. One of the bigger promotions was SkyJam, an event where hot-air balloons would fill what is now Russell E. Diethrick Jr. Park. “We knew that we not only had to entertain dad or mom … but we had to entertain everybody in the stadium for them to come back again and again.”

He also found success when running the Jamestown ice arena, bringing international and the U.S. teams participating in Buffalo’s World Junior Hockey Championships in 2011 to the south county. It started with a phone call after hearing the teams participating would be spread out from Canada to other portions of New York state before reaching the finals. “By the end of that day, we had the top four hockey powers in the world,” Ferguson said, noting the competition put Chautauqua County on the map as the games were broadcast internationally.

A year later, the arena GM made another phone call that led to NBC bringing a production crew to the Jamestown arena for the “Progressive Skating & Gymnastics Spectacular,” which was tied to the Disson Skating television series. It aired nationwide in January 2013.

Running the county would not be as entertaining, though there’s likely to be plenty of drama. For the most part, current County Executive Vince Horrigan has cleared some major hurdles during his term. More communities are working together on regional efforts, the Chautauqua County Home has been sold and there’s major development prospects in the north county with Athenex as well as the south county with the National Comedy Center.

“I’ve seen some tremendous things happen, Ferguson said, noting the need for more shovel-ready sites that were so evident during former executive Mark Thomas’ administration. “I’ve also seen some things that I believe could have happened by now … with some fresh ideas and new leadership.”

What’s been thoroughly evident since May is the respect both Borrello and Ferguson have for each other. On Ferguson’s Facebook page there are pictures of his opponent as well as news articles. It’s tastefully done — and is a reminder of the last county executive race between Ron Johnson and Horrigan. There’s no mud slinging.

That’s a testament to some strong family ties. Ferguson grew up in Buffalo and the southtowns. His father, Vincent Sheehan was a Buffalo police officer while his mother, Marilyn, worked at Mercy Hospital. He also had a stepfather, John Ferguson. They were all role models when he was growing up. “(John) taught me tenacity … to get back up and go at it again,” Ferguson said.

In late August during the Farm Festival parade, Ferguson was joined by family and a group of supporters. All have been vital to him since the decision to run for executive after he was contacted by the county Democratic chair Norm Green in the spring.

This Sunday, that team will be marching again — for the 10th time this year — at the Festival of Grapes event in Silver Creek. Their support and belief in him keeps his enthusiasm high as the campaign heats up.

Right before he made his decision to run, he gathered his daughters and wife, Dianne, for their input. Almost in unison, they replied: “Wherever you’ve gone, you’ve left it better than you found it. We believe you can do this.”

It left no doubt for Ferguson. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-300, ext. 401.