ConAgra Foods’ decision to close two Carriage House facilities in Chautauqua County was devastating news to 425 workers.
The news added to a list of economic disappointments, contributing to substantial job losses throughout the county over the last year.
According to the New York State Department of Labor, Chautauqua County’s average unemployment rate for 2013 was 7.9 percent, down slightly from years 2009-12, but not by much.
“Right now, in the case of ConAgra, we’re working with everybody at the state and federal level to be able to find a new buyer,” said County Executive Vince Horrigan. “We’re also working with ConAgra in a transfer agreement to get the facility back to the Industrial Development Agency to market it to other buyers.”
Legislator Fred Larson, D-Jamestown, said he was concerned at a Planning and Economic Development Committee meeting last week that thousands of people in Chautauqua County are looking for work and can’t find it.
ConAgra’s announcement sparked a conversation between Larson and other legislators, plus Horrigan, about the future of the county’s economy, along with companies which have left the area.
Job losses after the departures of Petri Cookies, formerly of Silver Creek, and Keywell in Frewsburg totaled almost 300.
Additionally, Michigan-owned company Premier Lakewood Inc. announced it will close its doors in May, leaving 75 employees out of work.
The culmination of job losses between these four companies including the Carriage House locations is approximately 800, adding to previously reported losses by the Department of Labor of 7,000 since 2007.
That doesn’t include possible layoffs if Lake Shore Hospital is to close. Lake Shore and Brooks hospitals both had layoffs last year – 90 at Lake Shore and 30 to 35 at Brooks.
“Our job is to have more winners,” Larson said. “I see an awful lot of losers.”
Horrigan said he was focused on economic development and is doing everything in his power to improve the situation.
“We want to keep people working,” he said, referencing ConAgra’s Carriage House closure. He added that he has been in contact with potentially interested businesses to fill both facilities, while working with his administration to improve the economic situation of the county.
Bill Daly, executive director for the Industrial Development Agency, said job retention has been his focus, followed by expansion. Daly, who will be retiring at the end of May, said it is not as though there haven’t been economic wins.
“Job retention is the most important thing,” he said. “That’s why it’s such a blow when a company leaves because what you hope is that you maintain the workforce you have and hope they can grow incrementally.”
In terms of economic gains, Daly cited the fact that the IDA loaned $4 million last year to 15 different businesses.
“The fact that we were able to make $4 million in loans last year was a big deal, and we’ve grown our loan fund over $12 million,” he said.
In a commentary last year by former County Executive Greg Edwards, he wrote that Chautauqua County administers three industrial parks with 15 businesses and over 800 employees, manages 180,000 square feet of manufacturing and office space, and manages two revolving loan funds of over $12 million with 70 active loans.
Edwards said he and the IDA had worked closely with local owners/operators of Petri and Carriage House over the past several years on numerous occasions.
“What happened in each case was that after these businesses were sold, the new nonresident management, far away from our county, made decisions to downsize or relocate operations,” he said.
Daly said SYSCO’s decision to leave Falconer left an empty building, which was filled by Maplevale Farms through efforts by the IDA. In turn, 175 jobs remain there.
Maplevale’s former Clymer facility was recently purchased by Heil Transportation, which employs 75 workers.
“We look to help businesses expand because they’re already here, they have capital invested here and they’re happy with the employee base, so they stay here,” he said.
When AFA Foods, formerly known as Fairbank Farms, announced it would close its Ashville location in 2012, just under 100 employees were left without work.
It was announced in October that Empire State Specialty Cheese Co. LLC. will move into the empty building, investing $6.37 million to expand its business in Chautauqua County and create 204 new jobs during the first five years.
However, Empire has yet to begin business in Ashville.
“You see the constant transition, but a lot of our core manufacturers are doing well,” said Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown, noting that both SKF Aeroengine and Cummins Inc. are still succeeding. “A lot of your wins are smaller manufacturers who are adding three, five or 10 people. Some of them have national or international reputations for their quality.”
Goodell said specialty companies such as Chautauqua Metal Finishing, located in Ashville, and Blackstone Advanced Technologies are also doing well.
Another success has been Southern Tier Brewing Co., which owns 44 acres within the Stillman Industrial Park, Daly said.
“With their expansion, they’ve added employees as a growing business,” he said, noting Ruhlman Industrial Properties in Falconer as another success after a recent 10,000-square-foot expansion.
A project to put a Holiday Inn Express off Exit 12 is “major,” he added.
Although fewer people will be employed by NRG, the company’s decision to repower its Dunkirk plant was influenced by county residents and elected officials, along with Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
The project will maintain the county’s tax base, and is important to job retention, according to Goodell and Daly.
While an aging population, increasing taxes and state mandates contribute to lower employment rates in Chautauqua County, Horrigan said he wants to aid struggling businesses.
“We want to know what’s going on, so we can help wherever possible,” he said. “In some cases, out-of-state, out-of-county companies do not want to provide information and don’t want to talk. Corporate America is corporate America.”
During the State of the County address, Horrigan said he was meeting with officials from an interested food processing company. He did not identify the company, stating that the meeting was “confidential.”