Wendel’s State of the County address focuses on pandemic, future
If you ask Chautauqua County’s top leader, the pandemic is merely an obstacle in the path to success.
That was the prevailing message County Executive PJ Wendel gave Wednesday night during his State of the County address.
Wendel’s 18 minute speech was given virtually during the county’s legislature’s monthly meeting, which was carried live on Facebook.
In his address, Wendel noted how he began his tenure as the county executive about 10 weeks before the pandemic hit locally.
“On Sunday, March 15, 2020, we called an urgent meeting of county staff and other stakeholders to evaluate the rapidly developing COVID-19 situation. That afternoon I declared a State of Emergency and immediately formed a COVID-19 Response Team that began work on what would become a year long commitment,” he shared.
Wendel shared that his first priority was focusing on the health of the county as well as addressing the financial impact the pandemic was having. “The unknowns around the impact of economic shutdowns, sales tax reductions, and increased expenses of the pandemic, led me to create my COVID-19 Finance Team,” he said.
Wendel shared that teamwork paid off. “Thanks to better-than-expected sales tax revenues and departments holding to the budget reductions, our proactive approach paid off with preliminary – and I stress preliminary – budget figures showing 2020 coming in $4.5 million ahead of our budget,” he said.
While Chautauqua County was able to avoid the high hospitalization rates early in the pandemic, other parts of the state were not so lucky. Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a statewide pause in the spring, which impacted area businesses. “Working with local foundations, we launched a personal protective equipment grant program that helped 30 local businesses comply with state requirements. Also, we implemented an Emergency Working Capital loan program which assisted 24 companies with low interest loans,” said Wendel, adding that the loan program became a model to other counties in the state.
Wendel noted that as concerns grew about Pennsylvania’s high infection rate, he formed the Border Counties Coalition. “This group consisted of all counties that bordered Pennsylvania from Rockland all the way to Chautauqua County. These efforts proved to be vital in understanding the need to work with our bordering state and not to shut them out,” he said.
Now as the as vaccine rolls out and the county shifts its focus from mitigation to vaccination, Wendel said he will continue lobby for resources. “We have had preliminary talks and agreed to work quickly with the state to establish mass vaccination sites in Jamestown and Fredonia. These plans are ready to implement as soon as the state provides vaccine and I am confident this will help springboard our vaccination efforts,” he said.
Wendel noted that the Chautauqua Lake Memorandum of Agreement is set to expire this year. He looks forward to creating a new agreement. “We will continue to establish Chautauqua Lake as a scientific research center,” he said.
With the Jamestown airport, Wendel said they are working to bring commercial flights back to Chautauqua County and support other businesses there. “We have welcomed Luscombe aircraft manufacturing to the Jamestown airport, as well as Beta Industries, an aircraft manufacturing company that has produced electric aircraft. Chautauqua County will be serial number two of a charging station that will provide needed support to this company’s efforts with expansion and contracts with the US Air Force,” he said.
Wendel highlighted other new businesses as well, including Arktura, a ceiling tile manufacturer moving into vacant space at the Mason Industrial Park; Petri Baking Products as its moving forward in its previous facility in Silver Creek; and the proposed Love’s Travel Stop and Country Stores, Inc. which will bring development to the I-90 exit in Ripley.
Other goals Wendel mentioned included growing the county’s agricultural opportunities, collaborating with JCC and private businesses to address workforce readiness, and promote tourism as one of the leading industries in the county.
“I will continue to be a dedicated champion for the residents of Chautauqua County, to work tirelessly to bring Chautauqua County to the next level,” he said.