Athenex Debacle Another Dose Of Reality

Athenex came was introduced to Dunkirk with plenty of fanfare in 2016. OBSERVER Photo by Braden Carmen

From the beginning, the concept of the $200 million Athenex project in the north county was a tough sell within the community. Residents here, burned by the exit of manufacturing companies over the last four decades, were not ready to embrace the thought or premise that Dunkirk could become a location to help cure for cancer.

It was almost too much of a white-collar concept for longtime hard-working locals to accept. When the project was announced by then state Gov. Andrew Cuomo at Dunkirk High School in February 2016 to an auditorium filled with students, community members, area leaders and educators, applause and optimism filled the building.

On the outside, doubts and skepticism dominated discussion. Only months earlier had 400 jobs left the region from the closing of the Carriage House locations in both Dunkirk and Fredonia.

Projections of 450 jobs at the plant and another 450 to be spun off from the project seemed too far-fetched. Besides, how would we find that type of workforce here? Our history was in manufacturing and food processing, not developing pharmaceuticals.

More than six years since that announcement, the buzz has turned into a blip. Athenex, facing numerous financial difficulties, sold its leasehold interest in the facility early this year to ImmunityBio in California.

Though the deal brought plenty of fanfare, ImmunityBio is in the midst of cash-flow problems as well. Adding to those struggles is the Dunkirk structure itself.

Located off Route 5 in the town of Dunkirk, its exterior appears impressive. Inside, however, those who once worked at the facility say the flaws are many.

“The building was falling apart,” wrote one former employee in an email to the OBSERVER. “From what I heard they didn’t let the foundation set for the allotted time and began building on it. … Floors and tile were buckling.”

Those comments, sent to the newspaper in August, seem to be spot on for the moment. In the recent announcement regarding the 38 layoffs, deficiencies within the interior appear to have led to the screeching halt. A spokeswoman last week indicated the plant has “construction needs that may take approximately 12 to 18 months in order to enable the facility to be used as it has been intended.”

It’s not a good look — especially when the initiative is tied to the Buffalo Billion, which helped land the National Comedy Center in Jamestown. For all the good the injection of cash did for the region’s economy, there were its share of duds led by the Western New York Welcome Center — built in Grand Island of all the inconvenient places. Also, the SolarCity Project that is now Tesla has been a source of controversy due to fluctuating job numbers at the plant in the Queen City.

Back in Dunkirk, however, the Athenex flop has ripples that extend past the property itself. A proposal to build upscale housing at the Battery Point Villas — across the street — never took off due to a lack of investment. Another hotel, targeted for the waterfront, also failed to materialize.

Adding injury to insult, the major investment by Wells Enterprises to its ice cream facility has melted away. Once home to some 700 workers, the company says it will lay off 319 on Dec. 31.

No one can deny ImmunityBio and Athenex have their heart in the right place. Both companies are attempting to do some good by finding a remedy — or new medicines — for cancer.

This past summer, ImmunityBio was moving forward with a treatment for patients with bladder cancer carcinoma. Currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration, the drug would transform how patients are treated without high-dose chemotherapy, but instead by activating the patient’s innate immune system.

“We are pleased the FDA has begun its review, and ImmunityBio is prepared to move rapidly to manufacturing and marketing should the Agency approve our therapeutic for this indication,” said Richard Adcock, president and chief executive officer.

In the meantime, efforts here are on hold. A future so promising — at what was supposed to be a state-of-the-art facility — appears to be a casualty before it even began.

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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