The Strengths Of Chautauqua County
Despite the county’s decline in population and employment since 2010, the county has strengths that we all should acknowledge.
Abundant water, two interstate highways, three rail lines running through the county, the county sales tax exemption on clothing and footwear boosting retailing and the county’s right to cheap hydropower for industry are important strengths.
With the entire Southwest of our great country facing an unprecedented shortage of water, Chautauqua County enjoys the limitless water of Lake Erie and underground aquifers providing wonderfully abundant and safe water.
The Great Lakes states and their political leaders need to make sure this unique resource is not diverted to the parched Southwest. If those millions who have chosen to move to the desert want to enjoy abundant water, let them move to Western New York or the Erie, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, or Milwaukee areas where they can wash their cars, water their lawns and fill their pools to their heart’s content.
Interestingly, in 1960 Erie had a population of 135,000 and Las Vegas only had a population of 63,000. Buffalo had 528,000 people and Phoenix only 430,000. Now Las Vegas has 645,000 and Phoenix 1,650,000.
Chautauqua County leaders in the late 1980s and into the early 1990s refused to take no for an answer to our demand to Albany and Washington to finish then Route 17 as a four-lane highway. Their dogged determination was rewarded in 1997 when Chautauqua County celebrated the completion of the highway from Chautauqua Lake to Interstate 90 near Erie. Soon after, state Route 17 became Interstate 86, giving Chautauqua County access to two interstate highways.
Unfortunately, though, we have not done much with many of our interstate highway interchanges. Many of them have almost no commercial, retail or industrial development. It is also regrettable that Route 60 is such a slow, frustrating and dangerous connection between Interstate 86 at Jamestown and Interstate 90 at Dunkirk/Fredonia.
While the North County has long been served by two rail lines, by 1998 the South County faced the reality of no through freight rail line serving the greater Jamestown area.
Conrail (owner of the former Erie Railroad line from New York City to Chicago) had cut the line just west of the Cummins Engine plant in the Town of Busti and washouts had cut the line east of Olean. As a result, freight in and out of the South County could only be shuttled here through Buffalo.
The leaders, Democrat and Republican, of Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Allegany, and Steuben Counties got together and insisted that the State form a Railroad Authority to take ownership of the line (from Corry, PA to Hornell, NY) to put it back together as a through freight line. Happily Chautauqua County had Assemblyman Bill Parment as a member of the Democratic majority of the State Assembly and Senator Pat Magee as a member of the Republican majority in the State Senate. Parment and Magee had the power and influence to get the State Legislature to create the Southern Tier West Railroad Authority. Chautauqua County from 1974 – 2010, 36 six years, benefitted from a Democratic Assemblyman (Rolly Kidder 1974-1982, Bill Parment 1982 – 2010) in the Assembly Majority and Republican Senators (Jess Present, Pat Magee and Cathy Young) in the Senate majority. Interestingly, when Cathy Young wound up in the Senate minority in January 2019, she quit the Senate. By contrast, we now have both our state Assemblyman and our state Senator in the minority.
State, federal and private money from the NY and PA Railroad (that leases the rail line from the Railroad Authority) put the line back together in short order. Present and future businesses now have rail access to all of America and Canada.
In 1998, New York state decided to exempt clothing and footwear under $110 from the state’s 4% sales tax. The state gave each county the option to exempt those sales from the county’s sales tax (currently 4% here in Chautauqua County). The Chautauqua County Legislature and the County Executive at that time made Chautauqua County the only county in Western New York to exempt clothing and footwear from the County sales tax. We decided to compete with nearby Pennsylvania retailers where there is no sales tax on clothing and footwear.
Soon after Chautauqua County adopted the sales tax exemption, JC Penney moved from the Warren Mall to the Chautauqua Mall where it still is today. Warren area shoppers now come to Chautauqua County for tax-free clothing and footwear.
Through the efforts of our former State Assemblyman, Bill Parment, former state Senators Present and Young, and Rolly Kidder as a board member of the New York State Power Authority, Chautauqua County was added to Erie and Niagara County as the only three counties in New York entitled to cheap hydro power from Niagara Falls for industrial development.
How we use the strengths of Chautauqua County to build a stronger economy with thousands of additional good jobs for our children and grandchildren is the challenge of our time.
Fred Larson was a co-chair of the Route 17 Expressway Committee from 1990-1993, was a founding board member of the Southern Tier West Railroad Authority from 2000-2005 and served as Chautauqua County Attorney from 1998 through 2005.