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Tonawanda releases economic plan to offset Huntley plant closure

WBFO's Mike Desmond

The Huntley power station in the Town of Tonawanda is now shuttered and Albany is giving the town some help to make up for the loss of tax revenue. However, that will run out over seven years, so residents are trying to figure out how to mitigate the loss.

The Clean Air Coalition held a meeting Wednesday night at Philip Sheridan Elementary School to talk about the proposed action plan entitled "Tonawanda Tomorrow: Growing the Town's Economic Future."

Oover the past nine months, nearly 1,000 elected officials, organized labor members, community organizations and residents have been working together on an economic development plan they say will provide a "strong financial future for generations to come." The draft they came up with is a mix of short-term and long-term strategies.

Town Community Development Director James Hartz said there is a breathing spell to consider strategies, because Albany is putting up some cash to ease the pressure on tax rolls of the plant closing.

"Normally, local municipalities are left holding the bag - so to speak - with the property, the environmental contamination, the liabilities long term," he said. "Most of these coal-fired power plants in the past, when they shut down, have taken  20-30 years to transition into a new re-use. Certainly, being 90 acres on Tonawanda's waterfront, we're just not going to let that happen."

The Huntley plant, closed in 2016, is located on River Road and adjacent to the closed Cherry Farm hazardous waste dump site - a problem for decades. A key element for the future is getting plant owner NRG Energy to work with the town to figure out the plant's environmental condition - likely very messy as a former coal-burning site. Hartz said lawyers for the town and NRG are talking.

The new report calls for regional help to replace the plant's tax revenue and the good-paying jobs once at the plant. Huntley was the largest single revenue provider to the town and the Kenmore-Tonawanda School District, providing a $6.2 million-dollar payment in lieu of taxes at the time of retirement.

Western New York AFL-CIO President Richard Lipsitz said the unions have been working hard to help the lost tax revenue.

Credit WBFO's Mike Desmond
The Tonawanda Tomorrow meeting was held at Philip Sheridan Elementary School.

"So that's where our efforts to support and lobby for a law that would provide towns that were affected by such a closing with taxpayers dollars through the State of New York," said Lipsitz, "and that's what ended up happening and that buys us seven years.)

Immediate cuts in spending because of the cuts in tax revenues would have forced layoffs of union members in the town and the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda school district. Lipsitz agreed that a key issue is getting NRG to make clear its plans.

Clean Air Coalition Executive Director Rebecca Newberry said the town can learn from other places where a power plant went away.

"There's been some very interesting examples of re-purposed coal plant sites, not only in New York State. Those are referenced in the plan: Pennsylvania, Ohio," she said. "Many, many - ones that were larger than Huntley - and so we're definitely looking at other communities that have done these types of redevelopments as models for that."

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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