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WYOMING COUNTY ECONOMY BOOMING

In Wyoming County, growth used to be measured in the height of the corn and the weight of the calves.

But now the county's economy is growing like a weed.

Wyoming County, a rural enclave southeast of Buffalo that includes Arcade, Attica and Warsaw, had the state's largest percentage increase in private-sector jobs and business growth in the first half of the 1990s, according to new federal statistics released last week.

The number of private-sector jobs in the county jumped 30.7 percent between 1990 and 1995, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. In total, the county added 2,399 jobs -- more than Monroe County, which has 16 times more residents, and only slightly less than Erie County.

The number of businesses in Wyoming County shot up 14.1 percent in that time period. The county added 104 businesses at a time when Erie County, which is more than 21 times larger, saw its roster of businesses grow by 124.

Economic officials in Wyoming County say that the bulk of the growth has occurred in and around Arcade, a quaint village of 4,188 about 45 minutes southeast of Buffalo.

Why?

Arcade has its own municipal power system, which offers electricity at less than a quarter of what the major public utilities charge. Most observers say that's the reason Wyoming County is growing at a time when most of upstate New York remains stagnant or worse.

"The electric rates make a big difference," said Kevin Maguire, president of Hilec Inc., an Arcade company that makes fiberglass electrical sleeving and now employs 26, up from six a decade ago. "If and when the time comes for us to expand, we'll definitely stay within the confines of Arcade. It would be foolish to move away."

The same goes for Dry Creek Products, which makes wood pellet fuel out of sawdust. When the company was started five years ago, the owners' original thought was to locate in Erie County, said Barbara Shine, one of the partners in the company, which now employs 15.

"But the power rates made it much less expensive in Arcade, and now we're very happy here," she said.

Ms. Shine said four other small companies have sprung up on Edward Street near her company in recent years, and economic development officials say that's typical of the county.

Dozens of small businesses have started, complementing the job growth brought to town by the two plants American Precision Industries has located there in recent years, employing more than 200. In addition, plenty of new stores and restaurants have sprung up along Routes 16 and 39 to serve the new employees and a smattering of new residents moving in from the Buffalo area.

In total, Wyoming County has seen its service-sector employment double, to 3,157, in the first half of the decade, while gaining 368 manufacturing jobs. Between 1990 and 1996, the county's population grew to 44,357 -- a 4.4 percent increase at a time when no other Western New York county was growing by more than 2 percent.

Local economic development officials say the county's other major communities -- Attica, Warsaw and Perry -- remain economically healthy but aren't luring new businesses and residents the way the Arcade area is.

It's a radical change from 1988, when Motorola closed its Arcade plant and moved to Elma.

"We lost a company with 2,000 employees, but we've made a real good recovery from that ever since," said David Miller, president of the Arcade Chamber of Commerce.

Credit that progress to a decision the town fathers made in 1909. That's when Arcade formed its municipal power company, which started buying power from the State Power Authority in the 1950s.

That hydropower has remained relatively cheap in recent years, while utility rates from Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. and other power companies have been skyrocketing because of new pollution controls and other factors. As a result, while Arcade businesses pay about a penny per kilowatt-hour and homeowners pay three cents, businesses and residents just outside Arcade might pay 12 to 14 cents per kilowatt-hour for their electricity.

"It's more of a selling point for Arcade than it ever has been," said Larry Kilburn, the village's superintendent of public works, who runs the local power company.

It's also a good lesson for the rest of Western New York, said Andrew J. Rudnick, president of the Greater Buffalo Partnership.

"In the midst of a dramatic economic expansion nationwide, our economic expansion was minimal," he said. "You can blame that on two things: high taxes and high energy costs. What happened in Wyoming County shows that when you can deal with one of these problems, you can make a big difference."

Indeed, the Census' County Business Patterns data showed stagnation in Erie County. The number of private-sector jobs in the county increased by 2,962, or a mere 0.74 percent, during the first half of the 1990s.

Meanwhile, the nature of the county's economy changed dramatically. The decline of manufacturing continued, with another 4,674 jobs eliminated. Similarly, 3,666 jobs disappeared from the banking and financial services sector as two local savings banks, Goldome and Empire, essentially failed.

More than 3,000 retail jobs also disappeared along with 2,165 construction jobs. In their place came more than 14,000 jobs in the service sector, which includes everything from hospitals to auto repair shops to engineering firms to movie theaters.

"We still have to recognize that we have a large older industrial base here, and some parts of it go obsolete," said Stanley Keysa, deputy commissioner of planning and economic development for Erie County. "But we seem to be generating enough new companies and jobs to offset the losses."

While the data did not say exactly which communities were benefiting from economic growth, Keysa noted that Springville and Akron have healthy and growing manufacturing facilities -- because those communities, like Arcade, buy their power cheap from the State Power Authority.

Overall, Erie County ranked 29th out of the state's 62 counties in job and business growth during the first half of the 1990s, far better than Niagara County, which lost both jobs and businesses during the decade.

Niagara County continued to be plagued, more so than Erie, by the decline of heavy manufacturing.

"Certainly the economy in this area has not been robust," said Fred Caso, vice president of the Niagara Falls Area Chamber of Commerce.

In general, the Census Bureau data showed stagnation all across New York State. The state suffered a 4.14 percent decline in private-sector jobs during the first half of the 1990s, losing 293,267 jobs, most of them in New York City.

More than half the state's counties saw a decline in the number of businesses in those years. Only a handful of rural counties, such as Yates, Wayne and Warren, thrived both in job and business growth.

Census Bureau officials, who released the data at a briefing with regional reporters last week, cautioned that it is not perfect. Most notably, the County Business Patterns figures do not include the self-employed, government jobs or agriculture -- which, ironically, is Wyoming County's largest single industry.

The data is, however, an actual count of businesses and employees, which makes it more accurate than some government employment estimates, which have not shown such dramatic growth in Wyoming County.

"I'd like to say that we knew about this, but I'm a little surprised that the figures are so positive," said Richard L. Tindell, the county's director of economic development. "I wouldn't have guessed it, but it's nice to think that we're at the top."

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