County Executive Participates In Virtual Breakfast
Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel believes the county is in a good place as the COVID-19 pandemic slowly winds down.
On Friday, Wendel participated in a virtual County Executive Breakfast hosted by the county Chamber of Commerce. Todd Tranum, chamber president and chief executive officer, served as the emcee.
“These are some wonderful times and we’re starting to get back to some normalcy,” said Tranum to kick off the event. He invited Wendel to talk about how the county has been fairing since the pandemic was declared in March 2020.
“As we look back over the last year we look at what’s happened, what’s changed and what has opened our eyes to opportunities here for Chautauqua County,” Wendel responded. “One of the things I’ve been committed to is opening up the county, bringing it to more of a regional center, a regional hub, whether it’s for tourism, stay-cations, and availability as far as industrial and manufacturing jobs for businesses, etc.”
He noted that the county was truly shut down for about eight weeks, starting last March. Since June 30, 2020, the county has been active. “Our economic development teams have been working feverously, the IDA (Industrial Development Agency) has always been out promoting the county, we’ve been working closely with the Empire State Development Corp.,” Wendel said. “Things are looking bright here in Chautauqua County.”
Wendel said the county’s spending has fared well, after they made some difficult mid-year adjustments. The county’s sales tax projections ended in the black and the majority of the county’s spending was on existing operations. Their next goal is to make determinations how to use the federal stimulus award of $20 million, to maximize the benefits.
“The biggest challenge with that is the guidance. It’s very open, very broad, but we want to make sure that we are making decisions wisely,” he said.
The Center For Disease Control originally put out a goal of vaccinating 75% of U.S. residents in order to reach herd immunity. Wendel said they are trying their best to get that percentage of Chautauqua County residents vaccinated, but he admits there are challenges.
Some people have been vaccinated in other states, which the county isn’t notified about. Wendel said they are reaching out to those residents to get them documented as being vaccinated. Beyond that, the county is now moving away from large vaccination sites to smaller venues, such as schools and primary physicians.
Wendel said he’s heard from a number of manufacturers and business owners who believe the additional unemployment benefits are keeping people away from applying for jobs. He also believes that childcare is still a major issue for parents who are looking to return to the workforce. He said he’s been in touch with state officials to deal with both those concerns.
Wendel also wants to prepare more students to enter the workforce right from high school. “There was this term that every kid needs to go to college. Well I beg to differ. If you look at where this happened, the data was showing that more and more students were dropping out, the dropout rate of colleges were astronomical – 50%. Well it could have been said that 50% of the people should have gone to the workforce rather than gone to college. That’s what we need to focus on,” he said.
He highlighted the county’s P-TECH program and said it might be worthwhile to expand it to offer alternative education to those students who aren’t college bound. “We need to make sure we’re fitting those children into paths of success,” said Wendel.
Tranum asked in rapid fire about a number of development projects happening in Chautauqua County. Wendel responded about each one asked:
PETRI BAKING – “Right now they (new owners) are working with the banks, trying to get the funding to acquire the site. Things are still moving forward. We’re very optimistic that the smell of fresh cookies will once again be wafting through the air of Silver Creek,” said Wendel.
ATHENEX – “They’re just about to completion with the facility. … They’ll be looking to hire 100 people by the end of this year,” said Wendel.
AIRPORTS – “We are doing an internal study with our Planning Department. … We want to bring Essential Air Service back. … I’m very confident we will see progress with our EAS but if that doesn’t happen, we still have plans to expand our airports as far as availability and usage, not only for private, but for other enterprises and businesses that may want to relocate to our airports,” said Wendel.
CLOSED NRG PLANT – “We are looking at the re-use and different plans. … June 8 there will be an in-person preview of the results of those studies,” said Wendel.
LOVE’S TRAVEL CENTER – “They were approved for their incentives through the IDA. They’re collaborating with the town of Ripley. There’s a water and sewer extension that’s been completed. They tore down the old Colonial Hotel in process for the construction. It’s going to be the first of many projects that we feel are going to be coming around in that intersection,” said Wendel.
DUNKIRK FREEZER PROJECT – “Americold has a $40 million project for a cold storage up in the town of Dunkirk. Phase 1 has been approved. The town has approved the incentives by the IDA. … This is really a great project for the north county, in conjunction with Wells,” he said.
WIND PROJECTS – “The concern I have about wind is wind has to be bigger to get more effective and more efficient in producing energy. We don’t want to see larger wind towers going up in Chautauqua County. … I’m opposed to these large wind towers, especially off the shores of Lake Erie,” he said.
Wendel further expressed his concern about solar projects, saying they occupy hillsides and take away forests, in order to send green energy to New York City. “You’re going to basically trash or discourage growth of an area based on incentives that you’re throwing out for these projects in the efforts of green energy,” he said. “What’s disturbing is the governor is using upstate New York as a guinea pig and as a wasteland for him to provide power downstate. That is something that I am adamantly opposed to.”
Wendel did, however, note that New York is a “home rule” state, meaning that the local municipalities get to make those final decisions. “I ask them (town and village governments) all to look at all of the opportunities and all of the negativity that goes along with it. Please don’t be mesmerized by the dangling of money in incentives,” he said.
SCHOOL AND MUNICIPAL GOVERNMENTS
Tranum noted that many businesses that look to relocate to Chautauqua County are perplexed by the layers of government and numerous schools districts. “What do you think needs to be done to encourage create more shared services and mergers, and solutions,” he asked the county executive.
Wendel responded that in the end it’s up to residents to make those moves. “This is home rule. The people who live in those areas are the ones who decide,” he said.
Wendel believes towns, villages and school districts need to look at the economics when it comes to the impact of having so many different groups. He cited the success of merged sports teams and asked couldn’t schools have that same kind of success. “These are the things we have to look at going forward. We don’t have those robust communities anymore and the tax burden is starting to increase. Schools have gotten bigger while the population has decreased. Projects and costs per pupil has gone up while the student population has gone down,” he said.
Wendel noted the county government doing its part. It has reduced its tax rate five of the last six years and its workforce is now one third of what it used to be 10 years ago. “We are making the efforts across the board. How much further do we have to cut? Those are the decisions that have to be made and we have to look. But it can’t be one group. We have to look at this comprehensively across the county with towns, villages and school districts and look at really what’s the best way to utilize funding, combine resources and provide the best for our residents and our school aged children,” he said.