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NRG, welcome center among county priorities

OBSERVER File Photo County officials say figuring out the re-use of the mothballed NRG power plant in Dunkirk is a big priority.

MAYVILLE — A plan for the closed NRG power plant and a welcome center in Ripley are among the top priorities for Chautauqua County government officials.

On Wednesday, Chautauqua County Executive George Borrello and Deputy County Executive for Economic Development/County of Chautauqua Industrial Development Agency Chief Executive Officer, Mark Geise, issued a summary status report pertaining to several key economic development initiatives.

The Chautauqua County Division of Economic Development and the CCIDA set in motion of number of projects/initiatives in early 2018, soon after Borrello and Geise assumed their positions. While many of these projects are still underway, what is to follow is a brief synopsis of the status of a number of these projects:

NRG Power Plant Redevelopment Alternatives and Feasibility Study

The County and CCIDA are working collaboratively with the City of Dunkirk to develop a feasibility study for the repurposing/re-use of the NRG Power Plant located on Dunkirk’s waterfront. After securing a generous grant through the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), and matching this funding with local capital and in-kind resources, the working group interviewed a number of firms in late July of 2019 and selected Bergmann Associates to undertake this important project. The detailed analysis resulting from this effort will assess the facilities attributes, as well as identify the challenges for redevelopment, and will propose a number of potential reuse alternatives for the facility and its associated parcels. The project is expected to take 6-8 months to complete, at which point the County and City will take the next step of considering how to move the top recommendation(s) forward.

Ripley Gateway Study

The concept of developing a Gateway/Commerce Center along the New York State Thruway in Ripley has been contemplated for many years; however, a feasibility study of this type – to determine the scale and scope of such an operation – has not been undertaken. In order to advance the concept, the County and CCIDA, in collaboration with the Town of Ripley and other stakeholders, is currently contracting with Clark Patterson Lee, and their sub-consultant RKG, to undertake such a plan for the primary purpose of promoting, developing, and protecting the area’s tourism industry. Because millions of travelers annually traverse the New York Thruway, it has been recognized that this would be a prime location for the siting of such a facility as travelers enter and leave the State. Tamarac, a welcome/commerce center facility located in West Virginia and a model for this project, attracts hundreds of thousands of people annually.

In order to advance this concept, it was deemed essential to undertake a feasibility study that will not only investigate the feasibility of establishing a Gateway/Commerce Center, it will also result in the development of a conceptual plan that reveals the size, scope, and configuration of the facility along with cost estimates. It was also decided that this initiative needs to be undertaken in order to convince stakeholders that such a facility is needed and feasible. There is no doubt, that if built, this effort would ultimately lead to significantly more tourists spending money in the County, visitors being educated about what we have to offer, and more travelers spending time here.

“The proactive economic development initiatives being undertaken by the County and CCIDA are important projects that go beyond waiting for the phone to ring,” said Borrello. “It demonstrates the proactive, collaborative, and comprehensive approach we are taking as it pertains to the needs of our businesses and the public in general, including the tourism and agricultural sectors. I have vowed that we would put the resources in place to move these initiatives forward, and we are delivering on that pledge.”

Mark Geise added, “The County and CCIDA have been working diligently for more than 18 months to move these projects forward, and we will continue to advance them until they bear fruit. I am excited and proud of the work we’re doing, which goes well beyond a transactional approach to economic development — it involves planning and strategizing 5 to 10 years in the future,” he said. “We are looking at our assets, evaluating trends and challenges, and pursuing those initiatives that we think have the greatest chance of success.”

Economic Development Strategy — Partnership for Economic Growth

The County and CCIDA contracted with Camoin Associates in June of 2018 to undertake Phase I of a two-part economic development strategy. This phase, completed earlier this year, was aimed at assessing the current structure of economic development providers in the County and gauging the partner’s attitudes towards working more collaboratively. This resulted in the creation of the Chautauqua County Economic Development Organizational Plan, which also made recommendations regarding the refinement of a more inclusive public/private partnership and organizational structure that will ultimately lead to an alignment of resources and a more collaborative economic development environment throughout the county. The proposed economic development alliance, to be known as the Chautauqua County Partnership for Economic Growth (CCPEG), will be formally launched in the fall of 2019. The county and CCIDA have allocated the startup resources necessary to form this organization through an existing not-for-profit, the Chautauqua Region Economic Development Corporation (CREDC). The intent is to create a sustainable funding model with public and private support for operations and start to identify projects and initiatives to be undertaken.

Concurrently, the county and the Northern Chautauqua Community Foundation collaborated to secure a Ralph Wilson Jr. Foundation Grant, which will in part provide the funding required undertake the second phase of economic development strategy. Phase II will involve the creation of an economic development strategic plan which will bring together the many economic development partners and stakeholders to establish a comprehensive and inclusive strategy. Central to this strategy will be the identification of high-priority projects and initiatives that will be to be undertaken through collaboration under the auspices of the CCPEG.

CREDC is in the process of assembling the stakeholders into 5 working groups: Economic Development, Community Development, Workforce Development, Housing, and Quality of Life/Tourism, along with an Advisory Group consisting of local private sector and opinion leaders. Additionally, a “One-Stop” resources website has been developed, which can be accessed at CHQpartnership.org.

Recruitment/Visitors Brochure

The Chautauqua County Division of Economic Development and the CCIDA jointly financed the development and production of a new marketing tool, a published recruitment/visitors brochure, which tells the story of the County’s world class attractions and four-season entertainment. The brochure includes information about Chautauqua County’s year-round destinations, naturally diverse assets, and its historically significant attributes; the dominate business sectors and premier examples of key companies, including tourism, manufacturing, and the agribusiness sectors; its low-cost housing; the educational opportunities that abound throughout the County; and its strategic locational advantages.

The creation of this professionally produced brochure is part of a broader marketing and recruiting initiative that is a direct result of Chautauqua County Executive Borrello’s visits with more than 100 businesses in his first 100 days in office. A significant number of businesses communicated the need for a marketing tool that would assist them in their employee recruiting efforts by telling the story of the quality work/life balance that’s achievable here in Chautauqua County. At the same time, it was deemed important to broaden the brochure’s content to also serve as a tool for existing and potential visitors by telling the story of Chautauqua County’s natural and man-made assets, historical resources, educational and tourism opportunities, and other amenities that are key attributes for increasing tourism. The brochures are currently being distributed to businesses, organizations, not-for-profits, and service providers throughout the community.

Brownfield/Greenfield Development Strategy

Chautauqua County abounds in legacy industrial sites (brownfields), which are poised for redevelopment considering their location, infrastructure, zoning, alignment to State economic development priorities, and the generous incentives available to developers for their cleanup and development. That being said, the County and the CCIDA are contracting with a consulting firm, Prospect Hill, to work with the municipalities throughout the County to help inventory Brownfield Sites, assist with developing a tool to manage these sites, and make recommendations regarding how best to market their availability for redevelopment. The County, CCIDA, and participating municipalities are looking to apply for funding available through the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assist with these efforts. At the same time, the County and CCIDA are looking to expand their existing business parks through additional property acquisitions.

Empire State Brands Integrated Feasibility Study

Through generous matching support from the local foundations, the County, and the CCIDA, the Grow Chautauqua Initiative (Empire State Brands) recently completed a very detailed feasibility study and branding initiative for a proposed integrated growing and processing operation being contemplated in Chautauqua County, and presented their results to key stakeholders in the County Legislative Chambers on August 21, 2019. It is the belief of the County and CCIDA, as well as the results of the feasibility study, that this enterprise has great potential as an agricultural-focused business to support Chautauqua County’s strong farming community, while contributing to the growth of jobs. It would also provide a platform for the county to compete statewide, nationally, and in targeted global markets. We feel confident that such an enterprise, if it is built, would result in advancing Chautauqua County as an industry innovator and world class grower of quality ingredients/healthy foods. The study will test this hypothesis.

The proposed enterprise is the result of many months of collaborative exploration with the County and the CCIDA/CREDC. These combined efforts, along with extensive market research undertaken by the developer, resulted in the creation of a model operation that integrates the Hops and Barley industries from the growing stage, through to the processing of ingredients and finished food products. If built, the enterprise will serve the fast growing craft beer, distilled spirits, and healthy functional foods industry sectors. Next steps include securing funding, primarily from the private sector, to get the project launched.

Borrello and Geise are grateful to the many partners who are contributing to these and other projects, including the foundations, the business community, the municipal leaders, the service providers, the County Legislature, and many others.

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