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Editorial: Father and son left lasting mark on Orleans County

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 25 August 2016 at 1:41 pm

John and Mike Sawyer took the lead in building Western New York Energy’s ethanol plant in Medina.

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Photos by Tom Rivers

MEDINA – Orleans County and the Western New York agricultural suffered a great loss with Mike Sawyer’s death a week ago on Thursday.

Sawyer, president and CEO of Western New York Energy, was hiking on a remote trail on Cascade Mountain in the Adirondacks when he collapsed and died at age 43 due a medical condition.

Sawyer was instrumental in developing the $90 million ethanol plant in Medina about a decade ago. He quit a good job in finance in Rochester to work alongside his father, John Sawyer, in building the ethanol plant.

The two men rallied investors, community leaders and elected officials to get behind the project. The ethanol plant opened in November 2007, and remains the largest economic development project in Orleans County history.

John was the company’s first CEO and president. He served in that role until he died from leukemia at age 72 on Oct. 13, 2013. His son succeeded him as CEO and president.

Many of the ethanol plants are financed by giant agricultural companies. The Sawyers used local money to get the project done.

“It was their vision, grit and determination that made it happen,” said Dean Norton of Elba, who is president of the New York Farm Bureau.

The ethanol plant has given local corn growers a major market for corn. Many farmers have upgraded corn storage facilities, and added corn acreage since the ethanol plant opened.

“They were definitely very community-oriented,” Norton said. “They wanted to be good neighbors.”

John and Mike considered other Western New York sites for the ethanol plant. The Medina site at the corner of Bates Road and Route 31A had rail access, low-cost hydropower, and space to develop the complex that turns 20 million bushels of corn annually into about 60 million gallons of ethanol.

John had a successful farming career in Geneseo, where he raised his family. But John grew up in Orleans County, and welcomed the chance to return to his roots. The Sawyers gave $250,000 to the new Hoag Library in Albion, and contributed to many other charitable efforts, from golf tournaments to people battling illnesses.

(On a personal note, soon after Orleans Hub went live in April 2013, Mike called me saying he and his employees enjoyed the news site. He wondered how it would survive financially because it depends on ads to pay the bills for the Hub. Mike offered to take out a monthly ad even though the company isn’t selling its products retail to the community. WNY Energy has been an advertiser ever since.)

I was working for The Daily News in Batavia 12 years ago when the Sawyers starting meeting with local farmers and elected officials to build support for the first ethanol plant in the state.

It seemed then that Orleans County often came in second or third place when companies were looking at mega-projects. You would hear about companies looking at sites in Orleans, but we didn’t often land the big company.

When WNY Energy committed to Medina, Gov. George Pataki came to town to celebrate the news.

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Mike and John Sawyer were often side by side at Western New York Energy. 

Gabrielle Barone saw first-hand how Mike and his father pushed the make the project a reality. She is vice president of business development for the Orleans Economic Development Agency.

“Mike Sawyer brought an abundance of energy and solid business fundamentals to his role as CEO of Western New York Energy that was evident when I first met him during the initial development stages of the project,” Barone said. “I recall how he had the timely knack of bringing the right balance of humor into a conversation just when it was needed. We are indebted to both John and Mike Sawyer – they had the rare ability to see a potential and bring that to fruition to benefit the agricultural economy of Western New York and beyond. Michael was an outstanding successor and I share along with so many others, his untimely passing.”

The company pays about $1.2 million annually in local taxes, providing an enormous boost to the Medina school district, Town of Shelby, Orleans County and even the Lee-Whedon Memorial Library.

Despite the big tax bill, the company has been generous with the community.

John was becoming more active in local causes until his death from leukemia. He was especially interested in local history and wanted to help fund a county museum.

Mike became the company’s leader following his father’s death. He would oversee a recent $2 million investment in additional grain storage for 800,000 bushels of corn.

Mike, like his father, also was interested in helping local historical groups.

Mike also had a passion for competitive barbecuing, travelling the country for competitions. The former St. Bonaventure hockey player also loved the outdoors. He was hiking with his wife Andrea last week. He collapsed after reaching the mountain’s summit.

His funeral is this morning at 10 a.m. at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Geneseo, where he was a member of the vestry, and the church’s property and finance committees.

Our condolences to his family, friends and colleagues at WNY Energy.