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Another Voice: Huntley coalition overcame silos of self-interest

By Peter Stuhlmiller

Why is it so hard to get out of our own way? Over 10 years ago, business avatar Patrick Lencioni published his highly regarded fable, “Silos, Politics and Turf Wars.”

Stakeholders in the Town of Tonawanda have applied his theme to improving quality-of-life issues in our community. Various stakeholder groups broke down traditional silos of self-interest and have turned from competitors into colleagues.

When NRG Energy announced the retirement of the Huntley Power Generating Station on River Road, the Ken-Ton School District and the town and county municipalities were facing a total loss of $6 million in PILOT revenues.

This loss would eliminate jobs at the plant as well as services and programs offered by the school district and local governments. In addition, this closure would leave idle more than 100 acres of prime waterfront property in Tonawanda. One lesson was learned – Huntley would not be Tonawanda’s Bethlehem Steel. Organized labor, the Clean Air Coalition and the Tonawanda town leadership team dropped traditional barriers and worked with each other to start solving a communitywide problem.

The first step was to close the revenue gap. The Kenmore Teachers Association, Clean Air, the Western New York Area Labor Federation and Supervisor Joseph Emminger worked together with Assemblyman Robin Schimminger and then-State Sen. Marc Panepinto to secure the first round of relief for all communities devastated by the loss of revenue from the closure of coal-burning power plants. This new law was recently enhanced with the help of our new senator, Chris Jacobs.

The next step required a comprehensive stakeholder study of our town’s economic future. Thanks to union, environmental and town leadership, we secured a federal grant that allowed the University at Buffalo Research Institute to conduct a detailed study of the town’s economic future. The study involved over 300 residents, 728 community survey responses and input from some 20 local organizations. Earlier this year, UB released its “Tonawanda Tomorrow” report that serves as a valuable guidepost for economic and community development.

The final step is finding a community-friendly buyer to which NRG would be willing to sell its property on River Road. Last month, union leaders, the school district superintendent, town, county and state officials and the executive director of the Clean Air Coalition met at length to map out our strategy to facilitate this process. Our entire community has a huge stake in the outcome of this issue.

The important lesson is that community groups broke down traditional barriers between management, labor, government and environmental interests to work toward the greater good. By sharing political resources like information, contacts, time and legislative and bureaucratic access we have achieved a greater good for our neighborhood. We are now colleagues, not competitors.

Peter Stuhlmiller is president of the Kenmore Teachers Association.

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