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Management change must bring an end to the delays plaguing Athenex project

The game seems to be changing for Chautauqua County’s game-changer. Athenex Corp., conceived and nourished in Western New York, announced this week that it would start looking for other expansion possibilities after putting up with lengthy and incomprehensible delays in the state’s commitment to build a $200 million manufacturing facility in Dunkirk.

Albany, fortunately, recognized the danger posed by that announcement and quickly made changes that should help to put the project back on track. This is a homegrown company and it is important to keep it in Western New York.

Athenex is a specialty cancer drug company headquartered on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. As part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion program, the state promised to build a new facility for the company. Albany would retain ownership of the building, and Athenex would invest millions of dollars of its own money equipping the plant.

But it’s not happening. Fifteen months after the deal was concluded and six months after it was announced, nothing was happening. Athenex started to worry that instead of powering the company’s growth, Albany could end up hindering it. So it started looking elsewhere. It was unfortunate that it came to that, but from the company’s perspective, it was the wise move.

In response, Albany took the project away from SUNY Polytechnic Institute and gave authority over it to Empire State Development, headed by Howard Zemsky, a Buffalonian and father of Larkinville.

The company was pleased. “We welcome the opportunity to work with Empire State Development and Howard directly on this project,” said Flint Besecker, Athenex’s chief operating officer.

Still, matters never should have come to the point that the company was thinking of rejecting a once-in-a-lifetime deal, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced with a splash in February. “It is a game-changer for Dunkirk,” he told a crowd of around 600 at the Dunkirk High School auditorium.

Not yet, it isn’t. The company expected site preparations and detailed engineering work to begin in the spring. It didn’t. It’s not just Dunkirk, either. In Buffalo, construction of a $25 million headquarters and drug testing lab and formulation center hasn’t begun. It was supposed to have been completed five months ago.

One problem, as it was at the RiverBend construction site earlier this year, was the state’s seeming inability to pay construction workers on time. The state owes $1.3 million to the contractor and subcontractors working at the Athenex headquarters in the Conventus building on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. So, the workers aren’t working. Who can blame them?

Other problems plague the project, including the lengthy timeline that Empire State Development needs to approve funding. As a result of that holdup, Athenex advanced the money to buy the land needed for the project. If it seems crazy, there may be a reason for that.

We hope this is a case of all’s well that ends well. The Buffalo Billion is remaking the regional economy, and the Cuomo administration offered a generous and farsighted deal to Athenex. We hope the company will continue to hang in and become another part of Western New York’s continuing success story. A little more patience could pay off handsomely.

But Albany has to figure out how to get out of its own way. Paying contractors on time and making good on its own programs shouldn’t be that difficult a concept.

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