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Coalition makes recommendations on Tonawanda's economic future

Tonawanda Tomorrow publicly unveiled Wednesday night its general recommendations on how the Town of Tonawanda can grow its economy following the closing of the NRG Energy's Huntley Power Plant.

Some highlights of the group's draft plan include:

  • Embrace renewable energy and offer a balanced economy that isn't dependent on one or two industries.
  • Encourage large employers in Tonawanda, while also offering opportunities for small businesses.
  • Because older workers outnumber younger workers in the town's top five industries, the town needs to replenish its workforce with younger talent and see what companies need, especially those that are planning to expand.
  • Work with schools and local businesses to train young people for future jobs.
  • Encourage competitive wages and create an awareness among Tonawanda residents about jobs of the future and resources for obtaining those careers.
  • Create a vibrant and accessible waterfront for both business and for public access, and capitalize on this natural resource.
  • Offer a green, sustainable environment that is walkable and includes high-quality public access.
  • Maintain affordable amenities that will keep young people and families in the town.

The closing of the Huntley Power Plant last year became the catalyst for Tonawanda Tomorrow, a coalition of representatives from local labor unions, community development and workforce development agencies. The coalition spent nine months collecting input from nearly 1,000 Tonawanda residents, business owners and community stakeholders.

On Wednesday about 80 community members broke into groups to discuss the draft plan.

"This plan is about how we are going to grow our economy now that Huntley has shut down and we are not receiving that tax revenue anymore," said James Hartz, the Town of Tonawanda's director of planning and development.

The closing of Huntley resulted in about $6 million in lost revenue annually to the town, the Kenmore-Ton School District and Erie County. Recently the group saw some success in the establishment of a New York State fund to help power plant communities. Over the next seven years the town, the school district and the county will be able to use money from this fund to make up for lost revenues.

Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, said they have no idea what will happen next at the Huntley site, but he said this coalition has a broader purpose – to spur economic development.

"To make up for that loss you need to have good-paying jobs and more of them," said Lipsitz.

Fourteen-year-old Evan Haeick, a ninth-grader in the Kenmore-Ton School District who wants to become an environmental engineer, said, "I wouldn't want to see any more industrial work (at Huntley, which was a coal to energy plant). What I'd like to see is a renewable energy company, like SolarCity or solar farms in that space, instead of energy from coal and fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."

Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger said the Tonawanda Tomorrow plan is about much more than Huntley, focusing on the entire two-mile corridor along River Road.

"There's a lot of positives on River Road. I tell people not to focus so much on Huntley that we lose sight of the entire business community. There's a lot of good things going on," he said.

Emminger said there's nothing they can do to develop NRG's Huntley site, since it is private property. But he said town officials have attempted to reach out to NRG to make them part of the process.

Tonawanda Tomorrow is encouraging the community to read the plan on its website and offer input before the plan is finalized on May 31. The plan is expected be rolled out on June 21.

Tonawanda Tomorrow was funded by a federal Economic Development Administration grant of $160,000 with in-kind services provided by various partners.

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