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Cuomo’s words raise cautious hope in Dunkirk, ‘a city of ghosts’

DUNKIRK – Nine hundred jobs in Dunkirk.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo kept repeating those words this morning, almost as a chant, and a packed house in the Dunkirk High School auditorium rose and clapped and cheered. If you grew up in Dunkirk – where a restless Lake Erie sent gray waves crashing Thursday against the breakwall – it was fair to describe the moment as surreal.

I returned to Dunkirk this week, but my original plan went through a quick change. I had been meaning to go there to write about the mothballing of the NRG plant on the waterfront, the old Niagara Mohawk steam station where my dad worked on the coal pile, years ago. In the early 1950s, NiMo transferred him to Dunkirk from the Huntley station in Tonawanda, and the plant – during my childhood – was an anchor in my life.

When we were children, the smokestacks of that station, visible from faraway on the state Thruway, signaled to us on family trips that we were almost home. That the power plant was going dark seemed all too much of a symbol in a little city that has known deep economic trauma.

Instead, this week, an unlikely pivot: Cuomo traveled to Dunkirk to announce the state intends to spend $200 million on a Dunkirk manufacturing center for a specialty cancer drug. The company, Athenex, is a Buffalo startup that sounds like everything you’d want in a 21st century initiative: Cuomo described it as a forward-looking biotech spinoff, the kind of industry a little city like Dunkirk has always struggled to attract.

To fully understand the almost desperate embrace of the long standing ovation demands examining an even longer trail of broken dreams. It explains why some of my closest childhood friends in Dunkirk are reacting with what might be called hopeful skepticism, a quality Cuomo identified as justifiably entrenched in the region, a quality he said that it is finally safe to just let go.

Yet my friends remember, more than 40 years ago, when the big vision in Dunkirk was a downtown mall, seen as a panacea for the loss of city vitality. Using Urban Renewal dollars, the city leveled much of an old and distinct commercial district, but all too little went up in its place. The mall never arrived. For Dunkirk, it became a kind of civic ghost story – similar to the pursuit, decades ago, of a Saturn automobile plant that was supposed to change the fortunes of the city.

It didn’t happen. In Dunkirk, we learned in grade school to be cautious about dreams.

Like a tired boxer, the city settled in against the ropes. Steel plants shrank or were shut down. Among so many shutdowns that it was hard to keep count, Dunkirk lost such iconic industries as the Fred Koch Brewery, once the maker of Koch’s Holiday Beer – a Chautauqua County mainstay of the holidays. The descent hardly slowed: Last year, ConAgra closed two plants in Dunkirk and neighboring Fredonia, wiping out 425 more jobs.

The city’s population had already dropped from 18,205 in 1960 to 12,563 in 2010, a loss of dramatic scope for a small town. All of it contributed to Dunkirk’s high ranking in an especially painful Western New York statistic:

Of Dunkirk’s children, almost 40 percent live in poverty.

It is why new Mayor Willie Rosas, in his inaugural speech, spoke bluntly of “the other challenges facing our city as well: Crime, crumbling housing, empty storefronts and more.”

Still, there is another Dunkirk I remember from childhood, a city whose soul and spirit is tied into the lake. We’d ride our bicycles to the beautiful harbor at the foot of Central Avenue, where old men dangled fishing lines in the water. My dad would get out of work and we’d head to Point Gratiot, a waterfront park where families – once that day’s shift was done – would quietly watch the evening sun fall into the water.

There were gracious, gentle neighborhoods where kids played ball on brick streets, and there was the rumble of trains in the night to gently lead you into sleep. All of it built into that precious feeling of life in a small city, the knowledge that almost certainly, if you walked into a grocery store, you would not leave without smiling at someone you knew.

Rosas, the state’s first Latino mayor, invoked that heritage in his inaugural speech, insisting the setbacks are not insurmountable. Those who love Dunkirk will tell you the harbor is more spectacular than ever, a place of blue water where in the winter you might see a bald eagle. They will tell you how the evening sun beyond Point Gratiot can still turn lake and sky into one melded pool of gold.

The challenge is giving new generations a reason to stick around and see it.

Many of us grew up and left town, drawn to other jobs, in other cities. My mother and father would sit at the kitchen table with their coffee and cigarettes and speak wistfully of a civic revival, but they died – as did so many – without ever seeing it occur. The last members of my family eventually moved away, and now I return to Dunkirk mainly to stand in homage at the tombstone of my parents, and to wonder.

What I know is that it’s always the place that I am from, the gritty town that shaped my humor and my sensibilities. It is a place where I grieve over every broken window , and always hope in my gut the city might again ascend. So I planned on going back to write about the fate of NRG, where we’d once wait in a crowded parking lot for my father – coal dust caked in the wrinkles in his skin – to walk through the gatehouse as he left work in the Niagara Mohawk days.

Instead, I learned of this visit by the governor. Part of his arrival was overshadowed by an old battle, the same kind of sad story: NRG, owner of the mothballed plant, is asking for a big break on its PILOT agreement with the city, which would take away millions in tax dollars. Cuomo is calling for a Public Service Commission investigation, arguing NRG ought to resurrect a jettisoned plan to convert the plant to natural gas.

Forgive my friends, then, if they kept one ear to that disruptive noise. They are hopeful about the Athenex plan, but they won’t toast it until they see steel beams in the ground, an event Cuomo and his advisers say could happen in April. The governor said 900 hundred jobs would make a world of difference in a little city, while my friends contemplate the potential loss of tax dollars represented by NRG.

As for Cuomo, he calls for lifting our eyes. He maintains this could be a transformational moment – a smokestack city shifting into biotech. But Dunkirk is a city of ghosts, and when you hear a confident voice promising good news, you wait to see and touch the promised result before you’re sure it’s real.

Even so, there was an undeniable power in listening to Cuomo – on the stage of this high school, not far from the surging lake – keep repeating the line about 900 jobs, and then speaking with passion of a startup in Dunkirk.

Trust me. If you’re from there, you’ve waited a lifetime for a reason to believe those last four words.

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