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Speakers in Alabama express hope and fear over proposed 1,200 acre technology park

For Holly Nelson, the proposed 1,200-acre technology business park in the Town of Alabama is both something to dread and something that seems like a good opportunity.

She's not alone in her conflicted feelings. Nearly a dozen people spoke at a public hearing Thursday night in the town's fire hall and expressed both a wish that Alabama remain a small, rural community, and that it embrace jobs and growth.

"I moved back here so I could be in the country," Nelson said during a short statement where she fought back tears. "If we had known what would happen, that this would be proposed, when we started building our home, we never would have built it. My whole family is here and loves Alabama. I don't want to lose that, but I do want my kids to be able to stay here and have a place to work. I'm so torn."

After speaking another minute or so, she said, "I'm scared," and seemingly unable to hold back the tears any longer, she walked away from the mic.

The purpose of Thursday's meeting was to give interested members of the public -- especially Alabama residents -- a chance to raise any issues with a proposed compensation package from the Genesee County Economic Development Center and the necessary changes in zoning for the site.

In all, the total estimated benefit to the town is $8.5 million, including $5.2 million for a new public water system. The town will also receive a commission on the sale of the land in park -- to be known as the Science, Technology, Advanced Manufacturing Park (STAMP) -- as manufacturers are signed to build facilities on the property.

The first speaker was an organized labor representative who encouraged Alabama residents to support STAMP because both in the construction and in the new factories, it could bring good-paying jobs to the region.

He was followed by Alabama resident Doug Crosen who encouraged the town board to not be swayed by outside voices.

"There's going to be huge pressure from the outside both for and against it, but the decision better be about our town," Crosen said.

Among Crosen's concerns is whether the money for public water will cover hook-ups for residents, and whether residents will have the option to say on well water.

Anita Goras said she had split feelings about the project.

"This is going to be in my back yard and that's where my cows are right now," Goras said. "I am open. I know I'm not going to live forever and I would like to see my grandchildren be able to come back here and work."

Kevin Sheehan, deputy mayor for Albion, told the board that if Alabama didn't want STAMP, Orleans County will take it. He encouraged the board to approve the project for the sake of all of Western New York.

Bruce Pritchett -- who grew up in Alabama, still lives on Maple Road, and teaches in Albion -- said he understands the desire to keep Alabama a small farming community, but young people, he said, need jobs, they need a reason to say in Genesee County.

"There are not a lot of jobs available," Pritchett said. "We send our jobs overseas. There's nothing here for people. This is a great opportunity. As a community, I hope we take advantage of this opportunity we have and make the best of it."

Tom Walsh, a Corfu resident, said he understands the resistance from some, but encouraged Alabama to move forward with the project.

"I know it scares a lot of people," Walsh said. "If it came to Corfu, I'd probably be a little scared for me at first, but I would know at least there would be some work for people."

Vance Wyder Jr., said he's a 40-year-old disabled military veteran who really only knows farming. He isn't sure he and other farming community members can really be trained for the kind of jobs STAMP will bring. He's worried about losing farming jobs, which are harder and harder to come by in Alabama, and then the new jobs not being filled by local residents. He said nobody has really assured him that local residents can and will be trained for the jobs.

"My message to the board is be cautious, be wary, make sure you are doing the right thing for our town and not for the almighty dollar, because in the end, the almighty dollar might kick us in the ass," he said.

Another speaker, a gentleman who has worked in IT for 20 years and is a resident of Alabama, said the board should be mindful of the potential for spinoff businesses from high-tech manufacturers.

He encouraged the board to ensure any businesses coming in reinvest in the local business community, such as by creating an incubator for start-up tech firms.

"We don't need some monolithic company with 1,800 jobs that never talks to the town after it's in place," he said.

Max Merten seemed the most strongly opposed to STAMP. He said he moved to Alabama 20 years ago to live in a rural community and he doesn't want it to change. He said he raised his kids to work, not push paper.

He's worried, he said, that the project is being pushed through the process too quickly.

"We don't need more jobs in a cornfield," Merten said.

Angela Kost concluded the round of speakers with the same ambiguity that set the tone for the meeting.

"I don't want to see it in my back yard, obviously," Kost said. "I don't think anybody in Alabama wants that, but it is a good opportunity."

The town board will meet within two weeks to take formal action on the proposals.

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