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NRG, Population Loss Among Topics At Executive Breakfast

Pictured are some of the people who attended Friday’s County Executive Breakfast sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce.

On the plate were eggs, potatoes and sausage, but when it came to questions it was a smorgasbord of topics during the Chautauqua County Chamber County Executive Breakfast.

Business representatives and elected officials gathered at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in Dunkirk Friday morning to ask County Executive PJ Wendel questions on a variety of topics. Among the questions asked during the hour-long discussion included the future of the NRG Plant in Dunkirk, the latest census numbers, child care challenges, federal funds and broadband.

For the power plant in Dunkirk, Wendel said personally he would like to see it repowered with natural gas. That being said, there has been at least one study done on what it could be used for. “One of the things were looking at is battery storage, data storage, data collection. Right now we have a group that’s looking at waste that’s on site for the fly ash,” he said.

Wendel said the plant is still owned by NRG, so that company has to agree to the plans for its future.

Another topic he was asked about was the county’s two airports. In Dunkirk, Wendel said ImmunityBio and Wells Food Corp. use the airport regularly. The Jamestown airport is currently closed due to the runway being reconstructed. He hopes it will be reopened June 10.

Chautauqua County Chamber President and CEO Daniel Heitzenrater, left, reads questions asked by the audience to County Executive PJ Wendel, during Friday’s breakfast in Dunkirk. Photos by Gregory Bacon

The Jamestown airport now has a one-hour charging station for battery-operated aircraft. One company requested to use it recently but they were unable to, due to the runway being closed. Wendel hopes that once the runway is complete, more battery-operated aircraft will use it. “Will it take off, we don’t know, but we’re going to put ourselves on the map to say right now we are going to be a charging center,” he said.

Wendel was questioned about population loss, the difficulty of developing a workforce, and ways the county can help working parents with child care. “There’s no silver bullet,” was a response he gave more than once, but insisted the county will do what it can.

With population, Wendel noted that the county has been dropping since the 1980s. He blames part of that on state government. “The state and our governors in the past eight or more years has the business climate in New York state very challenging,” he said.

He shared about a business that had 1,500 employees. “He moved his headquarters and those people to Texas. He now has 2,500 employees but is paying the same taxes on that business. That’s a lot to say,” Wendel said.

Wendel said they are putting in more “shovel-ready sites” for developments, so when companies like Amazon or others approach the county for development which could draw people the area, they will more likely to build. “We need to invest in our water and our sewer. … We are trying to become more business friendly in Chautauqua County,” he said.

He also encouraged the business leaders gathered in the room to talk positively about the region. “We really have to show the jewels and gems we have, whether it’s Findley Lake, Chautauqua Lake, ‘The Lake’ I call it here in Lake Erie, and the waterfront and harbors. Really everything, we need to share that with the world and let people see what we have here,” he said.

Along with water and sewer, Wendel said they’re working hard at developing high speed broadband through the county. The county has set aside $2.5 million from its American Rescue Plan Act funds. Meanwhile the federal government has sent New York state $100 million for high speed internet as well. “The big question is how to get it. We’ve been working in partnership with DFT. … I’m committed to keeping this local. Why would we bring in a company from somewhere else when we have DFT right here, whose done a ton of work and invested their own funds,” he said.

Along with broadband and shovel-ready sites, Wendel said they’re using ARPA and infrastructure funds to install public sewer districts around Chautauqua Lake. “What we’ve found over the years is septic systems near or on the lake’s edge have failed so we’re going to prevent that from going into the lake,” he said.

For Lake Erie, he wants to put more of an effort into Barcelona Harbor, which was dredged less than two years ago, but all the sediment has returned. “I’ve reached out to Senator Schumer. He’s a big champion of Lake Erie. .. We have a fishery. We have other economic engines that are out there — dive boats, charters — we need to get that harbor open,” he said.

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