GAINES – Orleans County has made progress on many fronts by tackling neglected infrastructure – roads, bridges, culverts, building roofs – while also getting closer to bringing high-speed Internet to underserved pockets of the county.
That was the message from Lynne Johnson, vice chairwoman of the County Legislature. She addressed nearly 100 people on Friday at the annual Legislative Luncheon put on by the Orleans County Chamber of Commerce at the Village Inn.
“2016 was a great year for Orleans County,” Johnson said at the luncheon.
She sees many positive developments for 2017.
Pride Pak’s construction of a 68,000-squarefoot vegetable and processing facility in Medina topped the economic development efforts last year, Johnson said. She praised the Orleans Economic Development Agency, led by Jim Whipple and Gabrielle Barone, for working with Pride Pak to make the company’s $12.5 million investment a reality.
Pride Pak also is considering two expansions in the future in Medina, with 200 workers eventually on the payroll. It opened in Medina in November with 40 employees.
Orleans County’s unemployment rate has also fallen to its lowest level in a decade, Johnson said.
Orleans took on an $8 million bond to tackle a series of infrastructure projects from 2015 to 2017, including six bridges, six culverts, and new roofs on some of the county buildings. The county also built two new pole barns for the Highway Department.
The county also purchased a paver for the Highway Department that is available for other municipalities. The Highway Department last year paved 29 miles of roads, more than doubling the previous high.
Orleans officials have been pressing the state for several years about the weight restrictions or closures with many of the canal bridges in the county, as well as the deterioration of the Lake Ontario State Parkway.
The state has about $20 million-plus approved to work on canal bridges and the Parkway, Johnson said on Friday.
The state has set aside $14 million to improve the Parkway in 2017-18 with most of the work upgrading the Parkway in Monroe County near Orleans. The Parkway paving includes $8.97 million to pave the road from Route 19 east to Payne Beach in 2017, and then $5.2 million to pave the Parkway from Route 19 in Hamlin to Route 237 in Kendall in 2018.
The Department of Transportation’s 5-year plan, which runs until 2020, doesn’t include paving for the Parkway west of 237 in Kendall.
A five-year capital by the State Department of Transportation, however, includes repairs to the lift bridge on Main Street in Albion, and $13 million to rehab six other canal bridges in Orleans County.
Gov. Cuomo last week also announced $2,989,000 for four other bridges in the county, including $1.045 for the Portage Road bridge over Fish Creek; $1.140 million for the Monroe-Orleans County Line Road bridge over East Branch Sandy Creek, $630,000 to Orleans County for South Holley Road over a branch of Sandy Creek, and $174,000 to the town of Albion for a small bridge on Clarendon Road over West Branch Sandy Creek.
Johnson has been the county’s point person for efforts to extend broadband Internet into Orleans. The county has teamed with Niagara County in the Niagara-Orleans Regional Alliance to press the state for more high-speed Internet coverage.
The effort received good news late last year when Charter Communications announced it would serve most of the remaining gaps for coverage in Orleans as part of its merger with Time Warner. The state is requiring Charter to extend service to an additional 145,000 homes and businesses in New York over four years as part of the merger.
In Orleans County, there are about 3,600 households without access to high-speed Internet, but that number would shrink to 77 as part of the merger.
Charter would also make significant improvements in Niagara County, reaching all but 943, with most of those gaps in rural eastern Niagara County.
“The broadband has been a long struggle and we’re not done,” said David Godfrey, a Niagara County legislator who has been teaming with Johnson on the broadband push through NORA.
The high-speed Internet is critical for attracting and keeping residents, who need the service for homework, job searches and a desired quality of life, Godfrey said. Businesses need the service to file many reports and to be competitive in the marketplace.
Godfrey said the extended service will fill a need, “so we are no longer deprived and discriminated against because we are rural counties.”
NORA also has been working together to oppose a new lake level plan for Lake Ontario. A plan approved by the bi-national International Joint Commission has been approved, despite concerns that it would lead to more erosion and bigger fluctuations in water levels on the southshore. Johnson said she is optimistic the Trump Administration will overturn the plan.
NORA also has been pushing for a dredging plan and federal funds to ensure harbors, including Oak Orchard, are dredged on a regularly basis to prevent a buildup of sediment that could make the harbors impassable for boaters.
“We are working on a long-term mechanism to dredge our harbors,” Johnson said.