Analysis: Positive spin can’t change murky future for site

OBSERVER Photo by M.J. Stafford There’s no easy solution for what comes next at the NRG site in Dunkirk.

Everyone who has paid attention knows it will be a tough road to redeveloping the NRG power plant site next to Dunkirk Harbor.

A new study commissioned by local government, led by Buffalo’s Bergmann Group and released Tuesday, drives that home further.

EJ Hayes from the city Planning Department was frank about the task ahead, in helping to introduce the study in a meeting at the Firemen’s Training Grounds. “We’re trying to turn a negative into a positive and put that facility back into use,” he said.

His boss, Planning and Development Director Jill Meaux, spoke of being hopeful for a “fantastic new use for the site” — but one dependent on NRG’s participation and plenty of state and federal government funding.

One of the first things stated by Samantha Aldrich, the Bergmann Group representative who led the presentation, was that the site is actually two parcels: the NRG power plant property surrounds a plot used by National Grid for a substation. This fact came up several more times during the presentation as a complicating factor for any redevelopment, as not one, but two, utilities will have to be on board.

“Our team understands that the closure of the NRG facility had a significant impact on this community,” Aldrich said. She explained the study team identified three objectives other than figuring out reuse options: supporting community revitalization, promoting workforce development and including renewable energy components.

The emphasis on renewable energy — Aldrich made clear the study creators think it should be integrated into any future reuse, with carbon offset credits used to help pay for it — played into another theme Tuesday. Political realities make several possibilities, but most notably a coal or natural gas plant repowering, all but impossible.

Left unstated were the “realities”: dominated by big-city Democrats, the state government is firmly pro-green energy and anti-traditional power sources, but is in profound disagreement about the matter with many officials from mostly Republican Chautauqua County.

Another reality is that the “clean slate” option of scrubbing the land for recreational, housing or mixed use redevelopment could cost some $38 million.

Bergmann Group called it a viable option but appeared pessimistic about it. It noted that with such a huge sum needed just to get the land to marketable condition, some sort of public-private partnership would likely be necessary. The National Grid switchyard was again mentioned as a complication.

Finally, the “clean slate” totally depends on the market for such reuses. Although one spectator declared that the land “was worth a quarter of a million dollars an acre cleaned up,” a Bergmann Group employee who Zoomed into the meeting noted that this is not the Chicago or San Francisco waterfront, where developers would drive a huge demand for such a property.

Aldrich eventually got to the preferred reuse options of a computer data storage center or a mix of the data storage and an industrial development. There was very little time or detail given to those proposals, which were announced towards the end of the presentation.

The emphasis seemed more that additional studies are probably needed on the site and that more funding is needed for these studies. Aldrich mentioned all stakeholders will need to continue what she called a solid relationship with NRG.

The clearest thing to come out of the study is that everything about the site’s future is still not clear. A spectator said to County IDA Director Mark Geise that he thought the proposed demolition costs under “clean slate” were actually too low. “We don’t know what we don’t know at this point,” Geise acknowledged. “You could be right.”

The Bergmann Group’s PowerPoint presentation and the full study are to be posted on both the city of Dunkirk website and the Chautauqua County website.


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