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The Southtowns Coalition finds itself ahead of the curve

HAMBURG — The Southtowns Community Enhancement Coalition announced that its nine-year effort to draw attention to the Southtowns, especially in the agricultural sector, have found fertile ground in current county economic plans.

The group, comprised of individuals from the towns of Brant, Concord, Eden, Evans, North Collins and Sardinia, as well as the villages located within their boundaries, met in the North Collins Village Hall on Aug. 8, to hear from Erie County Department of Environment and Planning Deputy Commissioner Tom Dearing, who relayed a new focus on agriculture in the county.

Dearing highlighted the farm issues outlined in the “Initiatives For a Smart Economy,” an economic blueprint issued by County Executive Mark Poloncarz in June. Its components reflected the $117 million contribution to the county economy and identified areas that could be established or strengthened to add more vitality, according to Poloncarz.

The executive’s review followed the regional state development report issued two years ago, mirroring many of the same points, specific to the county. Agriculture figured largely among eight points of the local economy examined. Some of those ideas were:

– Establishing a shovel-ready agribusiness park at one of two identified locations. The first is the former Eden-Angola Airport and the second is at the former county home and infirmary in Alden. The site would be maximized for food and agricultural processing facilities to be close to where produce is grown.

– Creating dedicated development capacity for the Erie County Industrial Development Agency for the agriculture sector. The ECIDA currently has no provisions to assist agricultural-based projects.

– Studying the feasibility of a food hub, one or two centrally-located facilities for collecting, storing, processing, distributing and marketing local produce. The Eden-Angola Airport and county home properties were again considered for a project.

– Creating a food policy council as part of the department of health. The process would bring together producers, grocery stores, restaurants, food disposal services and consumers to focus on connecting consumers with healthy, locally-produced food.

– Establish a regional agricultural brand, to make it easy for shoppers to easily identify food products that are produced in Western New York. The lead on this project would be taken by the Cornell Cooperative Extension.

Dearing said that agriculture is a big driver in the county, evidenced by an agricultural plan’s recently being adopted by the county legislature.

Poloncarz’ paper set outs a three-year plan to study and implement some or all of the agricultural proposals. According to Dearing, the biggest obstacles at this point are limited staff and lack of funding, but he added that he is confident that the steps could be accomplished during the suggested time span. Erie County Legislator John Mills said that he and his caucus had been invited by the county executive to help shape the budget and that Mills will see what money was available for the plans.

Coalition Chair and Eden Supervisor Glenn Nellis said he was pleased that agricultural issues were part of the new economic plan and was glad that the Eden-Angola Airport parcel was considered a part of development plans.

He expressed concern about the proposed food hubs’ being newly built. “The Eden Valley Growers Cooperative already provides that service and it’s important to remember that it is composed of family farms, not large corporations,” he said. Nellis added that the co-op is currently planning to add to its refrigeration capacity to handle greater volume.

Dearing said, “We always point to Eden Valley as an example, when explaining the food hub concept,” and added that this could become the hub for the Southtowns, with another created to serve the north and east.

Mills added his concern about a second hub as a separate entity, saying, “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. We already have the Eden Valley facility ready to go and if a second hub is added, it should be aligned with Eden Valley, so the two don’t become competitors.”

Dearing said that, due to the work of the coalition, the Southtowns are poised to take advantage of the county initiatives. “There is nothing like your group in the north or east of the county; they are not as organized,” he said.

Mills gave his own proposal for the convention and visitors bureau, to add an agricultural tourism aspect to its program. He said that it would be helpful if the county executive could also focus some attention on the subject, to prod the CVB along those lines.

Lori Szewczyk, director of community development for Evans, also told Dearing about the need for greater CVB involvement. “The lack of attention from the CVB is why we formed this group,” she said. “Their map used to stop at Hamburg.” Sandy Brant, director of planning for Evans, said that the group was happy to see these issues in the plan and added, “We have attractions, but we have been treated as a stepchild in tourism.”

Mills said, “I am fascinated that the county executive put on a time line, to hold him accountable. We need to get people off [Route] 219 and see something else.” Angola Mayor Howard Frawley said that he liked the idea of the ECIDA’s involvement in agricultural issues, pointing to Goya Foods© in his village as an example of the growth that can be found.

“They employ 140 people year-round and export their products around the world,” he said. “They are currently trying to get reduced power rates.”

Nellis reported that the Regional Farm Museum, a private entity, has retained a grant writer in the hope of funding the construction of a 60-by-40-foot, possibly two-story, structure. The museum curators have offered space in that building to the coalition, to serve as a “jumping-off point” for the group’s expanding farm trail.

Brant Supervisor Leonard Pero said it is his hope to turn the old Brant Town Hall into a farm workers’ museum, which could be tied in to the regional museum.

Just how attractive agritourism can be was found in the group’s review of the previous week’s five-hour tour of the area with State Sen. Patrick Gallivan. Mills said that Gallivan “got a good experience of how large the area is and the diversity of products found here.”

To feature that diversity, the coalition will hold a harvest dinner, featuring local foods, on Sept. 21. The event will also feature a theme auction, a farmers market and fiddlers on hand, beginning at 5 p.m., with dinner at 7. Only 100 tickets will be sold and are available for purchase from any Southtowns Coalition member.

The next coalition meeting will be held at 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 5 in the Brant Town Hall.

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