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Amid shaken faith after corruption arrests: Gov. Cuomo, time to return to Dunkirk

Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to Buffalo last week with a message for those he called “naysayers and doubters.” Nine men had just been charged in a federal investigation of corruption intertwined with state projects, services or contracts, including several officials who’d moved comfortably for years in the governor's inner circle.

Cuomo spoke of his dismay at “a very disturbing and reprehensible story of possible misdeeds,” but also expressed defiance toward anyone who saw the crackdown as a bad omen for his Upstate initiatives: Amazing, Cuomo said, “how quick the negative can rise up.” The arrests, he insisted, will not derail “the energy and the progress and the momentum of Western New York revitalization.”

That Upstate arc, by his description, will keep rising “from a place of cynicism to a place of hope.”

He said that in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, amid the celebration of an impending $100 million expansion.

A suggestion for the governor, if he wants his words to count: One place where that arc really needs to rise is Dunkirk.

Yes, Dunkirk, or Dunkirk-Fredonia, if you want to speak of the larger Chautauqua County community where I was born. On cool September mornings during my early childhood, we’d stand on the porch just before we left for school and breathe in the sharp perfume of ketchup being manufactured at the nearby Red Wing plant, a factory where it seemed like everyone in town had worked at one time or another, a place that eventually was known as Carriage House ….

Until it closed last year, shut down by ConAgra in a move that shuttered plants in both Dunkirk and Fredonia. It tore out another piece of the civic soul. Hundreds of jobs vanished from an area in desperate need of them.

A crowd at Dunkirk High School to her Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in February. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

A crowd at Dunkirk High School to hear Gov. Andrew Cuomo, in February. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

Live through enough of it, and you become a master of "naysaying and doubt." Shut down Roblin Steel and the Fred Koch Brewery and Kraft Foods and True Temper and on and on. Run into bureaucratic molasses on a vision of using natural gas to repower a mothballed coal-powered steam station. Level much of your downtown as part of a big plan for Urban Renewal and then essentially put up almost nothing in its place. Bleed the population for generations and watch poverty engulf more and more of your children ….

In Dunkirk, so emblematic of decades upon decades of Upstate struggle, skepticism can serve as both a harsh form of humor, and a shield.

The governor, in February, promised those days were finally coming to an end. He stood on the stage at Dunkirk High School before a roaring crowd and kept saying “900 jobs for Dunkirk,” a statement offered almost as a chant. He was accompanied by such officials as Alain Kaloyeros, president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, hailed by the governor as a visionary architect of what sounded like a Chautauqua County miracle:

As part of a major Western New York expansion, a Buffalo biotech company named Athenex was going to build a plant in Dunkirk. The result: A 21st century operation that would put 450 people to work producing a high potency cancer drug, an operation that would create an equal amount of “spinoff” jobs.

A related column from Sean Kirst: Cuomo's words raise cautious hope in Dunkirk, a 'city of ghosts'

The governor used that February announcement as a way of addressing regional cynicism about the future in general, about government in particular. He said he understood where the disbelief came from - and that it was finally safe to let it go. He presented the plan as absolutely solid, and state officials said site preparation might begin by last April.

Coal-powered generating station, Dunkirk, shuttered since last year. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

Coal-powered generating station, Dunkirk, now mothballed. (Robert Kirkham/The Buffalo News)

It didn't. Seven months later, no construction work is under way. Kaloyeros, cited as a champion of the project, is suddenly pleading not guilty to three counts of public corruption involving a bid-rigging scheme, part of a federal sweep that led to charges against nine officials and businessmen. Many of the accusations involve bribes or favors worth far more than most working people earn in a year.

The Dunkirk initiative had no connection to the arrests, but if you’re from that little city, it’s easy to react like this: The big announcement was all bogus, one more gadget for a civic junk drawer filled with broken hopes.

Yet Flint Besecker, chief operating and financial officer of Athenex, and Teresa Bair, a senior vice president, emphasized the plan remains very much alive. Yes, they said this week, the company struggled for months in dealing with SUNY Polytechnic, as Stephen Watson of The News reported last month.

For a while, Bair said, Athenex officials were frustrated and felt “stuck in the mud.” Watson wrote that company executives began looking elsewhere - including a site in the United Kingdom - for production needs they originally thought would be solved in Dunkirk. But Bair said Cuomo responded, about a month ago, by making  Empire State Development the lead state agency on the project. That put it under the direct supervision of chief executive officer Howard Zemsky, who offers what Besecker called "a much more transparent process."

Now, Bair said, the entire landscape has changed. “We’re treating this project as if it’s happening," she said. "It’s completely on track.”

Still, a word of advice from a guy who grew up in Dunkirk: The cynicism there is less a flaw than a studied means of self-protection, forged by many decades of announcements that went wrong.

The suspicion is only compounded when everyday New Yorkers endure a span in which one governor who promises dramatic reform (Eliot Spitzer) quits when caught up in a prostitution scandal, and the two most powerful figures in the state legislature – former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and former majority leader Dean Skelos – both end up convicted on corruption charges, and then some men held up as statewide economic heroes are suddenly in a courtroom, pleading not guilty to abusing the public trust.

If you’ve spent your life in a little city where too many things are used-to-be, how are you supposed to react?

As for the governor, if he's really confident these arrests won't undermine the Athenex plan, he ought to make another trip - and soon - to Dunkirk High School. He ought to fill the auditorium with working people worried sick about their city, and explain to them why they shouldn't feel utterly betrayed by criminal charges against officials who were supposed to bring them hope.

Indeed, if this little Lake Erie community is a microcosm for so many years of struggle in this region, it would be a good moment for the governor to stake his Upstate legacy on an absolute commitment:

This dream in Dunkirk will end up as the real thing, not one more joke.

Sean Kirst is a contributing columnist for The Buffalo News. Email him at seanpeterkirst@gmail.com and read more of his work in this archive.

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