Little people score big win to save NRG

A picture is worth a thousand words. And, in this case, $88 million and change.

The photo appeared on the front page of the Dec. 8 Sunday OBSERVER. It featured a throng of people, in the 40 to 90 year age bracket, braving bitter cold temperatures and harsh lake winds to fight for the very survival of their city. And it was powerful enough to move people in high places to take action.

At stake was the continued operation of the NRG power plant, the city of Dunkirk’s biggest taxpayer. Lose it and the already burdensome property taxes would skyrocket. A house in Dunkirk would be worth about as much as the prize in a Crackerjacks box. NRG had extended to the city its biggest helping hand in decades by offering to build a $500 million natural gas power plant to assure the company’s future presence. And this magnanimous investment was being threatened by the likes of environmentalists and National Grid, which wanted the plant shut down in favor of buying more power generated by dirty Pennsylvania coal.

Incredibly, or maybe not, senior citizens dominated the crowd at the Dunkirk Boardwalk when that Kodak moment was snapped. Their voice was strong and they were heard – all the way in Albany. The most seasoned politician couldn’t help but be moved by the sight of the woman (who appeared to be about 90) leaning on her cane while grasping the hand of the man next to her for support.

Yes, the Greatest Generation was out in force that morning, the women covered by warm babushkas and scarves and the men’s faces barely visible under tightly drawn hoods. They must have been chilled to the bone – yet seemed undaunted by what Mother Nature was sending their way.

These hearty souls were on a mission. They were out to save the city of Dunkirk, their hometown and for most, the only place they had ever lived. The December open-air rally put the exclamation point on a campaign to “Repower Dunkirk” that was born months earlier.

The fate of the NRG power plant – and ultimately the city of Dunkirk – rested in the hands of the NYS Public Service Commission and when its members came a-calling to SUNY Fredonia in July, they were greeted by more than 2,000 NRG advocates. People who might have cringed at the mere thought of public speaking found themselves up at the mike, boldly lobbying for the preservation of the economic stability that NRG brought to their community. Afterward, a steady barrage of letters, emails, petitions and calls inundated Albany.

Still, this unrelenting pressure did not seem to be enough as months dragged on with no resolution. Sensing the urgency, State Sen. Catharine Young called for an eleventh-hour rally near the Dunkirk pier, second guessed by many especially with the Arctic-type weather in the forecast. A glance at the front page photo shows this rally was a mass appeal to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to go to bat for NRG and the community. Two huge signs, both bearing the governor’s name, dominated the scene: “Gov. Cuomo, Where Is YOUR Voice To Support Us?” and this little reminder, “Gov. Cuomo, Western New Yorkers Are Also New Yorkers – Help Us.”

Exactly one week after that picture and accompanying story appeared, Gov. Cuomo found himself a stone’s throw away from the site of that tide-turning rally, announcing that a compromise had been reached between NRG and National Grid to the tune of $150 million. Although a new plant would not be built, the existing facility would be converted to a natural gas power plant with a 10-year guarantee of operation, resulting in roughly $88 million in PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) money to the city of Dunkirk, the Dunkirk school district and Chautauqua County.

Euphoria? You bet. All of Dunkirk was energized and crackling with the excitement of a positive outcome which rescued the city from life-support status. “Thank you, Governor Cuomo!,” was etched on the ecstatic faces of everyone who heard the good news. A Christmas miracle or man-made victory? You be the judge.

Gov. Cuomo had these words of praise for the little people who stood up to make their voice heard on the issue: “Democracy works when we exercise it, and democracy works when you use it, when you show the effort, and you did that, time and time again. It wasn’t a short road; it was a long road, and you did what you had to do.”

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease” and “there is strength in numbers” best capture the essence of the grassroots movement to save NRG. Add in this mantra by Dunkirk residents to the naysayers’ insistence that little people can’t take on the bigwigs and win:

“Yes we can.”

Mary Ann Herrington is an OBSERVER Staff Writer. Comments may be sent to mherrington@observertoday.com