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Growing business has to leave

This is the problem. The people we most need to keep are the ones whom we drive away.

The names this time are Damian and Vicky Parker. The local couple are merely the latest entrepreneurs forced to flee an upstate desperate for growth but determined to deny companies the economic equivalent of sunlight and water.

Which is why the Parkers in two weeks will close their English Pork Pie company in Cheektowaga and head for Youngstown, Ohio. They will quadruple the size of their production plant. They will soon hire 45 workers. They will watch as a business that sprouted here blossoms there.

"We don't want to leave here, we are very saddened by it," Damian told me, as we sat this week at a table in their warehouse office. "But we had no choice."

The Parkers are a nice, eager couple in their 30s whose first child is due any day now. The natives of Great Britain have a taste for -- and a talent for making -- English meat pies. They gave up careers in law to move here -- her parents live locally -- and turn a labor of love into a livelihood.

What started small is turning big. They and a half-dozen workers make pies by hand and ship them across North America, mainly to British ex-pats. The demand has inflated beyond the 1,500 pies they churn out every day. Astoundingly, they bought -- with their own money -- a $400,000 pie-production machine that lets them make 50 times as many pies as they do now. Which means they need a bigger building.

What happened next is a small example of a huge problem in this state. Until the cost of doing business here changes, we will pay an enormous price in fleeing companies and unemployed upstaters.

The Parkers found a big enough building nearby. But none of a half-dozen banks -- including HSBC, First Niagara and Citizens -- would give them a commercial mortgage. The Small Business Administration was "more trouble than it was worth, with all the paperwork and closing fees," Damian Parker said.

Despite their $400,000 investment, despite a mushrooming client base, despite no debt, despite pie-stocking interest from supermarket chains, no local bank would spare them a dime.

"Because of the recession," Vicky said, "banks here seem unwilling to invest in business."

Through a realtor, they found space near Youngstown, Ohio. Within three days, an Ohio bank gave them the commercial mortgage and line of credit they searched in vain here for months.

"It was an effortless process to get something done," Damian said, "versus what we saw here, with so many hoops to go through."

What started here with a futile search for a mortgage led to larger revelations.

"The property taxes [in Ohio] are a sliver of what they are here," Damian said. "Electricity and utilities are significantly cheaper there. It helps us to compete."

This would be bad enough if it was one story, one business. But what happened to the Parkers is sadly typical. Sometimes local officials bundle tax breaks and cheap power to lure or to keep a larger business. For small companies with big potential, like English Pork Pie, they usually just wave goodbye.

The names change, the story stays the same. Count this column as another shout into the wind, as another tree falling in the forest. Losing the Parkers is the price of too much bureaucracy, of too-high taxes, of too-costly power -- in a region where, absurdly, the mammoth cheap-power generator of Niagara Falls sits in our backyard.

The Parkers are a nice, hard-working couple. I wish them well with their growing business. I just wish they could grow it here.


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