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Executive candidates debate economy, workforce

PJ Wendel

Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series of the candidates running for Chautauqua County executive.

During PJ Wendel’s tenure as county executive and in the legislature, there have been a number of positive economic developments such as the expansion of Wells Food Corporation in Dunkirk, but also some major closings, like Truck-Lite, which ceased operations in Falconer and relocated to nearby Erie, Pa., impacting about 100 jobs.

Norm Green, the endorsed Democrat candidate for county executive, believes elected officials need to train workers so businesses can expand but also help corporations from leaving the county.

During a private debate with the OBSERVER and The Post-Journal, the two candidates were asked “With the manufacturing sector growing here in Chautauqua County, what measures will you take to continue to increase our workforce?”

Green felt the question takes the assumption that the local economy is strong, which he disagrees with.

Norm Green

“We certainly need to develop our workforce but what we’re doing right now isn’t working. Anybody that says it’s working isn’t paying attention,” he said.

Green noted that Wells would like to run three shifts but can’t get enough employees.

“We have failed Wells’ Blue Bunny. It would be great if we could have Blue Bunny Ice Cream coming out of Chautauqua County but we can’t get Blue Bunny Ice Cream because we have failure on the part of our county executive,” he said.

Green said most of the economic growth is taking place in Northern Chautauqua County. He has spoken with executives at Athenex and said they’re concerned about where they will be able to find qualified employees for their new Dunkirk plant. He believes the answer is in the southern end of the county.

“We have people in Jamestown that are available for work,” he said. “How do we get people from Jamestown to Dunkirk and how do we get people from Dunkirk to Jamestown? We certainly have to look at CARTS. We have a system that already is there and in place and could have looked at our American Rescue Plan money for a plan for the bus service. We should be having bus service that goes to factories that need the workers and be going there when the shifts change.”

Green also wants to see the county partner with schools to help train students when they graduate.

“We need to be telling people in the eighth grade, telling people exactly what kind of skills they’re going to need to be able to get a family-sustaining job when they graduate from high school,” he said.

Green complimented the P-TECH program in Dunkirk and the Raymond J. Fashano Technical Academy in Jamestown, but believes they should have more involvement with the county.

“We should be involved with our school systems, making sure that our kids know what kind of courses they should be taking and what they can plan on when they graduate from high school,” he said.

Wendel, meanwhile, defended his record at helping local businesses.

“We can go back and sit here and criticize with what has happened, but we need to look at the facts at what has been happening,” he said.

Wendel notes that he has been working closely with Jamestown Community College and its Manufacturing Technology Institute to train people and get them jobs. One example he gave is how he’s helping S. Howes LLC in Silver Creek find additional welders for its plant.

“We’re working with the Manufactures Association and the Chamber of Commerce to continue to open that up,” he said.

Wendel shared that he talks to BOCES and school guidance counselors to give them direction on how to help students find jobs, especially those not headed directly to college.

“Let the kids get into the workforce, develop their skills or explore the skills they want. Some of them might say ‘Hey this is what I want to do,'” he said.

Wendel noted that local companies are slowly, but surely filling the positions they need. He noted that in July there were 2,085 manufacturing jobs available in the county. In mid-October, there were 1,745 open positions.

“We’re filling positions,” he said.

He also said that more people are working. According to Wendel, in 2020, there were 44,300 people employed in the county. In August of this year, there were more than 47,000 people employed.

“Jobs are here. People are being employed. We’re giving them the skills to be successful,” he said.

Green scoffed at Wendel’s statements.

“It’s just excuse after excuse. You’ve been doing this for 10 years now – two years as county executive. Prior to that you were a leader and the chairman of the county legislature and you’re talking about things you’re going to do. These are things we should have already been doing,” he said.

Still, Wendel insists he’s proud of his accomplishments.

“What you see are things that are happening. They’re not things that we plan on doing. They’re the things that are already in the works. We’re going to continue and we’re going to be successful,” he said.

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