LITTLE VALLEY — Like others stunned by the decision by Siemens Energy on Tuesday to lay off more than 500 employees at its Olean plant, Cattaraugus County lawmakers have questions about what comes next?
“It sounds crazy,” said Legislator Rick Smith, R-Olean, as he prefaced his question in the Legislature’s Development and Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, “but what about going after Amazon?”
“It’s not crazy,” replied Crystal Abers, the director of the county’s Department of Economic Development, Planning and Tourism. “We talked to Amazon last year. We’ll go back at them now.”
When Amazon decided not to build a giant warehouse on Grand Island last year, Abers said Cattaraugus County expressed interest with the company and offered a site that met their specifications.
Abers said the county’s biggest problems are infrastructure — the lack of broadband across wide swaths of the county — as well as no north-south highway to connect to Buffalo.
“Those are the issues we are dealing with,” she said. “We are doing as much as we can. It’s one of the issues we face.”
She said the lack of a north-south highway to complement Interstate 86, “isn’t an excuse.”
Abers said the Siemens announcement that over 500 Olean employees would lose their jobs over the next 18 months was the third major economic blow to county residents in recent months.
She cited the state’s decision to close the Gowanda Correctional Facility where more than 500 would lose their jobs or transfer to other facilities in the state, and Setterstix Co. in Cattaraugus, which is closing and moving to Fountain Inn, S.C. where it built a $11.7 million facility and will hire 80 employees.
Settersix, which last year made 18 billion paper sticks for the candy, personal care and pharmaceutical industries, has a 60,000 square-foot plant in Cattaraugus where it originated 82 years ago.
Salamanca Legislator David Koch said the Route 219 Expressway route from northern Cattaraugus County to Interstate 86 would be a great project for a federal infrastructure bill.
“We need to get that Route 219 finished,” Koch said. “That would be the biggest shot in the arm Cattaraugus County could get. They’ve been building that road for 50 years. There’s still 22 miles to go.”
First proposed in the 1960s, the route has aimed to bridge the gap in highways from Springville to near Salamanca. While regularly brought up at the state and federal levels, cost estimates have ballooned from a few million dollars during the early 1970s boom in construction that brought the Southern Tier Expressway to the area into the hundreds of millions of dollars in more recent estimates.
Koch said the state has begun a supplemental environmental statement on the proposed expressway route.
Abers said the county’s Route 219 Committee and the private Friends of Route 219, formerly the Route 219 Association continue to advocate for the corridor.
“It’s tough to get the state to spend money on infrastructure in our area,” Abers said.
Contacted Thursday, Smith, a freshman Republican from Olean said his question about Amazon “was a million-to-one shot” in the wake of Siemens Energy’s announcement.
“It’s just sickening,” Smith said. “I toured the facility a few months ago with state Sen. Borrello and Assemblyman Giglio. There wasn’t a hint the plant would close. We’re getting hammered for not doing anything.”
Smith said, “It’s just sad for this area. There are so many good-paying jobs.”
He knows many of the employees, some of who are third and fourth generations of their families, to work at the Olean plant. “They are sick and are calling to ask what can you do? We’re not giving up yet. It’s going to take a miracle.”
Smith suggested residents driving past the entrance to the plant “turn on their lights and honk their horns to show support” for employees.
(Contact reporter Rick Miller at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)