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Where Is The Bottom?

With another economic blow to our community, the closing of Jamestown Business College, a part of Jamestown since 1886, one may rightly ask “Where is the Bottom?”

It is now 6 years since our community lost its passenger air service. We have dropped off the nation’s air map, while in contrast, our neighbor Bradford continues to have passenger air service.

It is about the same length of time since Sam’s Club (a part of Walmart, our nation’s largest employer) decided that Southern Chautauqua County was in decline and would not provide for a sufficiently profitable business. In Southern Chautauqua County our weak economy apparently has cost us a Buick, GMC and Cadillac franchise.

The recent County Commission recommending salary increases for elected county officials, inadvertently revealed how pathetic Chautauqua County’s economy is compared to 9 other New York counties the commission found “comparable” to Chautauqua County.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau the Median Household Income for those 9 “comparable” counties was as high as $121,000 and averaged $76,000. Chautauqua County’s Median Household Income was only $55,000, 28% below the average of the 9 “comparable” counties.

The Census Bureau found the Poverty Rate of those 9 counties to be as low as 6.5% with an average poverty rate of 12.9%. Chautauqua County’s poverty rate is a dismal 17.6%, 36% worse than the average of the 9 “comparable” counties.

Lastly, the Census Bureau found that Chautauqua County’s population loss from 2010-2020 of 7,200 residents and its percentage drop of 5.5% were both the absolute worst of the 9 counties.

Those who would blame Chautauqua County’s decline on our being in New York State are confronted with evidence that the rest of New York State is doing much better than Chautauqua County.

The newspapers have reported that Chautauqua County’s economy ranks almost at the bottom in New York State, 60th out of 62 New York counties (57 counties plus the 5 boroughs of NYC).

Chautauqua County’s decline has not been a slow, steady decline. After our country’s 2008-2009 financial collapse, the Chautauqua County economy fell off a cliff.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s the New York State Department of Labor reports that Chautauqua County’s employment was quite steady at 68,000 “employed.” At the end of 2023 the number of “employed” in Chautauqua County has plummeted to 54,000.

While there are “help wanted” signs across America, the “help wanted” signs in Chautauqua County are mostly the result of the disappearance of our labor force. The NYS Department of Labor reports Chautauqua County’s labor force had dropped from about 70,000 in 2008 to about 56,000 now.

Although it is not in the New Testament, the saying “The Lord helps those who help themselves” has tremendous application to Chautauqua County.

We can do better. We must do better.

For those who would label this essay “negative” for telling the truth about Chautauqua County’s economy, would they label their doctor “negative” for informing them of a cancer diagnosis?

Only by acknowledging a challenge and facing it head on will economic progress again be made in Chautauqua County.

Celebrating a multi-million dollar investment in a solar farm creating 1 job, for example, will not stop the population decline of Chautauqua County.

Of course, there are economic successes in Chautauqua County as there are in every county. The massive investment by Cummins in the South County and by Wells Enterprises in the North County will keep those businesses and their jobs here for the foreseeable future.

Despite these massive investments, however, the projected job gains are measured in the low hundreds for a County that has lost thousands of jobs in just the last 15 years.

We can do better. We must do better.

David Wilfong, the County Legislature’s majority leader, has recently publicly called for the restoration of passenger air service at the County Airport at Jamestown. That would be a good start on rebuilding our economy.

Under former County Executive Vince Horrigan, the County repurchased 60 acres of land from Bush Industries in the South County Industrial Park. The County needs to invest in making that 60 acres “shovel ready.” Such a 60 acre site could lead to 250-350 new jobs in the community. That would be another good start on rebuilding our economy.

The decline from 5,000 students in 2013 to 3,200 students now at SUNY Fredonia has been a huge hit to our County’s economy. Somehow, some way, the enrollment at SUNY Fredonia must be increased.

We can hope that Chautauqua County’s economy has found the bottom. It takes much more than “hope” however to halt and then reverse our sad decline.

Fred Larson was co-chair of the Southern Tier Expressway Committee from 1997-2001, was a founding board member of the Southern Tier Railroad Authority, served as a member of the Chautauqua County Industrial Parks Task Force from 1998-2001 and is currently a Chautauqua County legislator representing Jamestown.

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