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Owens, Doheny differ on plan for Massena’s economic future

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MASSENA — At the start of 1985, Alcoa employed 2,200 people in Massena. General Motors’s Central Foundry had 1,230 workers, while Reynolds Aluminum employed 780.

The “Big Three,” as they were known at the time, had a collective payroll of $149 million and 4,210 total employees, according to a Massena Observer article titled “1985: A Year of Progress.”

Today, Alcoa owns both aluminum plants in Massena and employs approximately 1,100 between the two. The GM plant is closed and demolished. Instead of auto manufacturing, laborers are removing contamination at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site left behind by GM.

Massena does not employ nearly as many residents in manufacturing and industry as it once did. But both Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, and Republican challenger Matthew A. Doheny of Watertown said they believe Massena could have a brighter economic future. The candidates differ, though, when describing that future and their role in crafting it.

Mr. Doheny described his approach to reviving Massena’s economy as a “three-legged stool.” He would tout the town’s access to low-cost hydropower to prospective companies. Massena already has a “footprint of large factories,” a long tradition of industry that could be used to lure additional manufacturers here, he said.

“We are going to be focused like a laser on St. Lawrence County,” he said. “There are opportunities here that you don’t have in other communities.”

In addition, Mr. Doheny sees himself as the “salesman in chief,” playing a direct role in attempting to lure companies, startup enterprises and jobs to the area. While he acknowledged he would be filling just one of 435 seats in the House, he pointed out Rep. David O’B. Martin was instrumental in luring Fort Drum to the area in 1984.

“I know a congressman can have a disproportionate impact,” he said. “When you have the unique industrial base and the work force here, you have a lot of opportunities here.”

Mr. Owens said he does not see a congressman’s role as a salesman. A representative should, however, be advocating for the regional economy and local labor whenever possible, he said. He pointed out a recent trip he took to visit the Cornwall, Ontario, Chamber of Commerce as one opportunity to tout the area’s assets.

Taxpayers already fund economic development agencies whose mission is to attract and retain employers to the area, Mr. Owens said.

“Ultimately, the economic development professionals are the people who have to close the deal,” he said. “My view is to be the representative and help the people in the economic development area.”

Mr. Owens does not see the “footprint of large factories” as a recipe for further growth. Instead, Massena will be more likely to succeed if it diversifies its economy and attracts smaller companies.

“There’s a greater likelihood of seeing a series of small businesses,” he said. “When you have many small manufacturing sites, you reduce the risk that one shuts down and lays off a significant amount of people like GM.”

Mr. Owens has shown support for the local ironworkers who were bypassed in favor of a Texas firm for an Alcoa roof repair project.

“There’s available jobs for people in the north country,” Mr. Owens said. “Those are the easiest ways to get people back to work.”

But Mr. Doheny is against asking Alcoa to put more local people to work because the federal government should “not be wading in and telling productive businesses what to do.”

“It’s not, in the long run, the best way to go,” he said.

Mr. Doheny said he would support whatever redevelopment of the GM site represented the “best and most productive use of the facility” for the north country. As a congressman, he would try to make sure federal agencies and local issues don’t obstruct the site’s redevelopment.

“Honestly, if that ruffles some feathers, so be it,” Mr. Doheny said.

Mr. Owens said he trusted the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response Trust, which assumed ownership of the GM property last year, to successfully market and redevelop the site. RACER should give the surrounding communities regular updates on its progress, Mr. Owens said.

“Clearly, we want to make sure there’s consultation with all the stakeholders. Ultimately the reuse of the site is going to be a business decision,” he said. “If someone comes in with an interest in redeveloping it, we want to encourage that redevelopment.”

Both Mayor James F. Hidy, a registered Democrat who won on the Republican ticket in 2010, and Republican Town Supervisor Joseph D. Gray are endorsing Mr. Doheny.

Mr. Hidy had been a Democrat before moving to Michigan nearly 25 years ago. He switched to the Republican Party while he lived in Michigan.

He then switched back to being a Democrat when he returned to Massena a few years ago, but ran as the Republican candidate in the last mayoral election.

Mr. Doheny is the best fit for the north country right now, Mr. Hidy said.

“He knows the plight of the north country taxpayer,” Mr. Hidy said. “Right now, we need to grasp at any new idea and business opportunity that comes our way.”

“I have the utmost respect with Congressman Owens and I wish him well,” Mr. Hidy added.

Mr. Gray called Mr. Owens a “nice guy” and “well-intentioned,” but said he is now part of a broken system in Washington that needs to be fixed.

“The way to fix it is to replace some of the parts,” Mr. Gray said. “A guy like Matt Doheny will help to fill that leadership void.”

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