Company’s decision leaves leaders ‘angered’

With Wednesday’s news of Carriage House’s closure and elimination of about 425 jobs by February, area officials are scrambling to see what can be done to save its facilities from turning into an empty shell.

Chautauqua County Executive Vince Horrigan said he is “angered and frustrated” by this “blindside.” He spoke with a Washington, D.C. representative for ConAgra, Carriage House’s owner, which is the largest private employer in Fredonia.

“I wanted to know the rationale for closing and what we can do to reverse, modify or delay this decision, and the answer I got was, ‘There’s nothing you can do,'” he said. “We knew there was a challenge with the grape processing industry, and that’s what I thought we were operating on with a meeting this Friday to discuss it further, then all of the sudden we get this news.”

Horrigan emphasized he was told Carriage House would close without any opportunity to look into what can be done to turn the decision around.

“ConAgra is telling me this closure is demand-driven,” he said. “Demands for products are low, down through the floor, and they just have way too much capacity, so they’re going to close these plants. They alluded to the fact there may be more closures at other locations. They said they’ll absorb it for a while and then re-evaluate the demand, so it’s not like they’re moving jobs.”

The county, Horrigan added, will assist displaced employees in finding jobs.

“For the workers, we’re going to get our Workforce Investment Board and Department of Labor in there and start discussions with them,” he said. “We’re going to make sure as many employees as possible are absorbed within our work force, and also go after new businesses (to put into the closed facilities).”

Carriage House’s closure reached U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, who is calling for an investigation into whether ConAgra bought the facilities just to close them and reduce competition.

“I am furious about this,” he said at a press conference. “They say there is less demand for grape products, but they would have known that a year ago (when they bought the plant).”

Carriage House makes food products like jelly, peanut butter, condiments and juice.

Fredonia Mayor Stephen Keefe said he “wasn’t totally surprised, but very disappointed” when he caught word of the closure.

“There’s been messages out there, and even corporate language that they were going to stay in operation right here in Fredonia, that they had no intentions of reducing production or moving out of the area, but there’s always been rumors they might move,” he said. “We had gone over three weeks ago with ideas about the StartUp NY program, how they could save some taxes with expansion … and it didn’t seem to catch their interest. I think their mind was already made up at that point, if not the past year, when they didn’t extend the lease on the Dunkirk warehouse.”

Todd Tranum, president/CEO of the County Chamber of Commerce, attacked ConAgra for making the move.

“This marks the second time ConAgra dealt such a blow to the county,” he said, referring to the decision to close Petri Baking Products in Silver Creek last year after ConAgra bought it and Carriage House from Ralcorp Holdings in a multi-billion dollar deal. “Clearly this is another move by this international corporation to devastate family farms and small communities by purchasing assets just to increase shareholder value, and then closing facilities and wiping out jobs.

“It is shameful they are doing this while at the same time receiving significant taxpayer-supported farm subsidies.”

State Senator Catharine Young, R-Olean, said Carriage House’s closure is a “painful blow” to the local economy and “deeply distressing.”

“It is unfortunate ConAgra would not work with state and local officials to keep the plants operating,” she said. “I will ensure displaced workers receive the help and services they need during this difficult time.”

William Daly, administrative director/CEO of the County Industrial Development Agency, said the IDA will work to find a new company once Carriage House is for sale.

“We have a great deal of interest in this because it is a food-grade facility, and there’s not a lot of those out there,” he said, adding StartUp NY can be a tool to attract somebody. “We will be aggressive to try and find someone, but we have to wait until we get details from ConAgra about the building and price.”

Daly added the closure had nothing to do with anything the local work force did.

“The product lines are sagging and sales are off, especially jellies, and one of their goals when they bought up Ralcorp was to find cost savings from the merger,” he said. “The employees here are caught in a large corporate decision made far away.”

Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Chautauqua, put blame squarely on taxes.

“This emphasizes the critical importance we have to bring the state’s taxes, regulations and cost of business in line with the rest of the nation, and if we don’t, we’ll continue to lose jobs,” he said. “We are making some progress in this state budget, but more work needs to be done.”

Tranum gave a warning to elected officials they must stop increasing the “enormous property tax burden” if they want this area to prosper.

“This (closure) must serve as a wake-up call to our elected officials that increasing taxes can no longer be an option,” he said.

County Legislator Janet Keefe represents the district Carriage House’s plant is in.

“I really think it’s more about how much money they can make, rather than making a profit,” she said. “Big companies always want more, and I’m shocked and sad about this. This plant has been here all my life.”

Mayor Keefe said he is hopeful StartUp NY will “open the door for creative minds” to bring a new company into the plant.

“I hope Fredonia has what it takes to be the phoenix coming out of the ashes, that we do turn this around and make something better out of it,” he concluded.

“Our thoughts and concerns are with the employees and their families through this difficult time,” Tranum said.

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