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County’s persistent plunge no illusion

OBSERVER file photo Local officials and Americold executives celebrated the company’s new cold storage facility in the town of Dunkirk in June. It’s been downhill economically since then.

It was supposed to be one of the wow moments in moving Chautauqua County forward economically during this calendar year. On June 21, a ribbon-cutting for the opening of the 181,000-square-foot Americold freezer storage facility operating in the town of Dunkirk on Williams Street Extension was celebrated by local elected officials and a number of other area leaders.

“We’ve probably got one of the largest freezers in New York,” Americold’s Steven O’Sullivan proudly said on that summer day, likely looking ahead to working with ice cream giant Wells Enterprises — just one block away. Little did he, or others, know about the game-changer that would take place one month later.

Dunkirk’s ice cream giant, which had 643 employees, announced July 21 it would be reducing operations significantly. After investing more than $75 million into the plant, Wells was backing off.

In September, the company — through the state Labor Department — announced the layoffs of 319 workers by Dec. 31. Ripple effects continue from the decision with a new year on the horizon.

When Carriage House shuttered its locations in Fredonia and Dunkirk in 2015, 450 positions were eliminated at both plants. Some workers found jobs at other major north county manufacturers while some left the region for a new beginning. Others, ultimately, left the workforce altogether.

What will happen to the many who leave Wells remains an uncertainty. With the county’s jobless rate under 3% and locations pleading for applicants, there are opportunities.

But that does not fix the bigger picture. What are Chautauqua County’s elected officials doing to stop the bleeding?

A year that started with so much promise appears to be ending as a bust. Besides job losses at Wells, the InfinityBio deal for the former Athenex facility appears at the moment to be a dud. That company laid off 40 workers in September, blaming a need for repairs at what is supposed to be a state-of the-art facility completed in 2020.

Current County Executive PJ Wendel ran two election campaigns based on a premise of strong leadership. Voters naively accept that platform even though it comes without a vision.

During his three years in the top post, Wendel has consistently shied away from taking a strong stance on any topic or initiative that involves controversy. This year, he presented a county budget that increases spending with a lower tax rate that still costs property owners more due to an increasing levy. He also promised more efficiencies in government though workforce numbers today exceed those from 2016, which is shortly after the former Chautauqua County home was sold.

Legislators are just as much to blame. They sit on their hands at the monthly meetings content with a status quo that does absolutely nothing to move the county forward.

Ask your legislator, if you know who he or she is, if they have accomplished their goals for 2022. Most of those 19 elected individuals — 15 from the Republican party — likely believe in their hearts they are making a difference.

But let’s be realistic. Nothing has changed since we are surrounded by too much government locally.

Elected officials here can blame Albany all they want, but our county ranks among the poorest in the state as population continues to decline. Altogether, there are 62 counties in New York. In terms of median household income, this county is one of the lowest of all those in upstate at $48,315, according to the U.S. Census. Even desolate Cattaraugus and Allegany counties fare better than we do.

For the record, our downward spiral is in its fifth decade. If area residents believe Democrats are the problem statewide, then they must also accept the fact that many Republicans are the gremlins locally.

There could be some hope on the horizon in the south county as Electrovaya has acquired the former Acu-Rite location in Ellicott to open e-battery operations next fall. We’ll take that as a positive.

But Mayville — and village, town and city elected officials — need to wake up. There are 60 other counties that are doing better than we are in this state.

That’s not Albany’s problem. It is ours.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.

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