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ECONOMIC OPTIMISM RIDES A SLIPPERY SLOPE IN SKI COUNTRY

As 2000 gets under way, things are looking up for communities in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties.

There's a general feeling of economic optimism among local business people and government officials that a foundation of growth has been laid that will begin to bear fruit in the form of growth and job creation.

"First and foremost, our manufacturing community remains stable, with expectations of growth," said Norman Leyh, executive director of the Cattaraugus County Industrial Development Agency.

"We've also heard commitments for capital investment from our service industry sector, and we've seen some slight growth in our population. All those are good, good signs."

If there's any dark cloud on the horizon, according to Leyh, it's the pending sale of Dresser-Rand Co. units which employ some 2,000 county residents at two plants.

"Right now, there's no indication a sale will mean job loss, but when you talk about changes at the county's biggest employer, there's always some cause for concern.

In early October, Ingersoll-Rand Co., which was a 49 percent owner of the industrial equipment manufacturer, agreed to buy the remaining 51 percent stake of the company from its joint venture partner, Halliburton Co. But before the dust settled on that ownership shift, Ingersoll announced it was seeking a buyer for the company's compressor division, which includes a compressor plant in Olean and a turbine facility in Wellsville.

A statement from an Ingersoll-Rand executive predicted little short-term change at the local operations as a result of the sale plan, leaving doubts in the minds of workers and local officials, alike, about the long-term impact.

"I've got to believe that whoever ends up owning them will recognize they have a skilled, hard-working work force at their disposal and see no need to make sweeping changes," Leyh said. "So far, there's been no negative impact."

Cattaraugus County's current employer rolls include 21 companies that employ 100 or more workers, and a growing stable of up-and-coming businesses that have fewer than 100 names on their rosters. Across-the-board, those companies are predicting either stable work force numbers or slight increases for the year ahead, according to Leyh.

"We've seen a similar climate for four years now, so I'm very optimistic that we'll have stability, at a minimum, with great potential for growth," he added.

Ski country is doing well

One of the economic highlights of Cattaraugus County continues to be ski-related investments in the Ellicottville area. Holiday Valley Ski Resort, which has a long track record of reinvesting in its property to fuel its growth, unveiled plans in late 1999 for $4.3 million in improvements this year.

Just over $3 million of that will be spent to more than double the size of its Middle Chalet lodge. The design for the new lodge will be completed this winter, with the current 10,000-square-foot chalet to be razed in April. The new 25,000-square-foot, three-story building will feature enhanced skier services on the ground floor and a "marketplace theme" for food service on the first floor. The chalet is expected to be completed by late October, in time for the next skiing season.

The remaining $1.25 million to be used to upgrade chairlift, grooming and snowmaking equipment.

"I think the ownership and management of Holiday Valley should be applauded for once again putting the majority of their profits back into their operation, instead of their pockets," Leyh said. "I'm just tickled pink to deal with an organization like that. It creates a win-win situation for them, their customers and this county."

The village of Ellicottville will also see a shot of investment at one of its most well-known addresses, the vintage Ellicottville Inn, on Washington Street in the heart of the village.

Gary and Heidi Brown of Ithaca, who have spent many winter weekends skiing in the area, purchased the worn inn in November, and plan a total remodel to bring it back to life.

"This is a long-term investment for us," Heidi Brown said. "We bought it knowing it knowing it needs a lot of loving attention, and we are committed to that."

Brown declined to give a dollar estimate of the extensive interior and exterior work that will be done, but she did say the project will include a complete renovation of guest rooms and bathrooms, and development of an overall decor package with "a ski town feel."

The couple is also evaluating the possibility of some new uses for the inn's first floor bar and dining room.

"There will always be some level of food service at the inn, but we're looking into the idea of using some of the first floor for retail," she said.

Work on the historic building will begin at the end of the ski season. The inn remains open in the interim, with Olean's Castle Hospitality Management overseeing day-to-day operations.

Other major Cattaraugus County projects for 2000 include: a $31 million expansion of Jamestown Community College's Olean campus, a multimillion-dollar expansion at Olean General Hospital and further investments on the St. Bonaventure campus.

Steel plant saved

Chautauqua County officials and residents also have reason to expect an upbeat year. Fredonia Mayor Frank Pagano, who heads the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency, said there's a lot of "good stuff" in the pipeline.

"I don't know if I've ever felt this optimistic. So many good thinks are happening in so many areas," Pagano said.

High on Pagano's list of positives is the former AL Tech Specialty Steel Corp.'s emergence from bankruptcy in November, with plans for long-term stability.

Empire Specialty Steel Inc., as it is now known, also received a financial package from the Empire State Development Corp. that included approximately $15 million in grants and loans. The New York Power Authority structured a contract that permits the new corporation to continue to receive the allocation of electric power that had been assigned to AL Tech.

A statement released by Empire indicated the economic package will allow the company to "maintain current employment levels and will give Empire Specialty Steel the opportunity to create significant job growth over the next five years."

Empire's Dunkirk plant has 300 active employees and 200 on layoff.

Another economic bright spot is the arrival of two businesses affiliated with Fortune 500 companies which are expected to bring at least 120 new jobs with them. The newcomers are National Bedding Co., a licensee of Serta Mattress Co., and JRL Enterprises of Pittsburgh, a minority-owned subcontractor to a division of transportation giant, DaimlerChrysler.

"It is not often in this county, or in any other, that we are able to introduce two new companies at the same time, of this stature," explained Richard Alexander, a Chautauqua County IDA official."

"The companies involved in these two projects are international leaders in their industries. Their decision to invest here reflects a growing trend by manufacturers to look to Chautauqua County as a location of choice within New York State."

If there's any bad news for the county in the coming year, it's the loss of Buffalo Bills training camp, which has been held for many summers on the campus of the State University of New York at Fredonia. The football team announced last year that it will move its preseason camp to St. John Fisher College in suburban Rochester starting this summer.

"It's not a huge economic loss, it's more of a personal pride thing," Pagano said. "It was fun to have them here, and it brought people to Fredonia who never before had a reason to visit. It can't quantify it in dollars and cents, but we'll miss that annual event."

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