By Gib Snyder
When the state's Public Service Commission convenes its public hearing today on the solution to electric system reliability needs, there will be more than two businesses that are very concerned about the PSC's eventual decision.
Whether the PSC decides a transmission upgrade plan proposed by National Grid, or a repowering at its Dunkirk site proposed by NRG Energy is the answer, the decision will affect the future of many local businesses. Ellen Luczkowiak is president of the Dunkirk Chamber of Commerce which is part of the Chautauqua County Chamber of Commerce. She was asked about the reaction of Dunkirk Chamber members concerning the situation.
"I can tell you in a word; fear is a big thing here in Dunkirk," she replied. "Fear for the businesses who are members who won't be able to afford Chamber memberships. They're paying taxes, their tax increases are going to be huge. The schools having to find ways to make cuts, which is certainly going to cut education in our youth.
"So from the standpoint of the Chamber, we're very concerned. Very concerned because I think it would harm a lot of the clubs in the area. People are really going to have to tighten their belts."
The Chamber not only supports its local members, it is part of the ongoing effort to attract new business to the area. Luczkowiak said that effort will be affected if the PSC opts for National Grid's proposal, which, as things stand now, would eventually lead to the closing of NRG's current coal-fired generating plant in 2015. Without the re-powering with a natural gas combined-cycle plant being built, NRG's contributions to the local economy will be cut dramatically.
The current Payment in Lieu of Taxes agreement between the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency and NRG calls for one more payment at the original schedule. After that, the payment schedule was set up to be tied to the amount of production at the plant. With only one of the two smaller generating units to be run under a reliability agreement running until 2015, and neither of the two larger units in operation, local governments are already making contingency plans.
Luczkowiak said the closing of the plant will not only affect local government and the bottom of line for businesses, there will be another consequence.
"It's going to be tough to bring in new business. We work very hard to go outside of New York and different areas,even Canada, to bring in new businesses to this area because that helps the Chamber grow, but it also helps Dunkirk to grow. When Dunkirk has positive growth, the Chamber grows," she explained. "If NRG leaves that's going to take such a huge hit, like I said, on a number of areas; taxes, education and everything. It's going to kill the Chamber as well, so that fear is a big thing right now.
"We want to make sure that we do everything in our power, that's what we're there for, our function is to help businesses grow, help the community thrive. So because of that, we want to make sure we're doing everything we can to see that this thing goes through."
The Dunkirk Chamber is second only to Jamestown's as far as having members in the county Chamber. Luczkowiak said most Dunkirk businesses are Chamber members.
"We feed the big chamber with what we have here," she added. "By doing that we have responsibility to our area community, which is why we do things like the scholarships, Music on the Pier, trying to bring about information to outside areas, cities, people, to say, listen we are a viable community here. Come do business here.
"In a nutshell, we really are working hard to make sure we are at these types of meetings and provide a voice for the businesses who maybe can't get there. We make sure we have Chamber representation for these things so that they know we're working for them."
Luczkowiak said she expected a large turnout of Chamber members at the hearing and cited a letter from Assemblyman Andy Goodell to many area residents asking them to come to the hearing as "huge."
"You're not only hitting the businesses and the Chambers, you're hitting the residents and that is huge, that's what we need. I give him a lot of credit for that," she added. "Truth be told, if this doesn't work that could affect their jobs. We're already talking about lowering the number of legislators; working on combining communities and schools; and everything else, because how are we going to grow the population if we keep losing business?"
The hearing is set to begin at 6 p.m. in the SUNY Fredonia Williams Center with presentations during the first hour by both National Grid and NRG. After that, the PSC and the administrative law judge running the proceeding will hear from scheduled speakers and then the general public will have its turn.