Powerplant symbol of lost era

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It’s a common memory around Tompkins County: sitting at the lunch counter at Woolworths. You can still find clothes from it in some people’s closets or vintage stores. It was one of those companies that no one ever thought would go out of business. When E.F. Hutton talked, everybody listened, until they didn’t. A picture is worth a thousand words, but Kodak needed cash. Who didn’t use a Compaq computer at some point? Now they’re all gone.

Morse Chain employed 10,000 people at its height. It turned out planes for World War II, miles and miles of chain. Workers were an integral part of the community, some immigrating to America because they had a job lined up at Morse. Now, the Morse building is empty, and while there are plans to redevelop, the site is huge and it’s been decades.

At one point, Smith Corona in Groton had 1,200 workers, and then, in the course of a decade, they were all gone. It was a blow that Groton never recovered from. In 1983, The New York Times quoted some in Groton who equated the closing to the passing of an old friend. That’s how I look at the recent announcement of the Cayuga power plant closing.

The power plant has provided electricity to the state for six decades. Its closing really is like losing a member of the community, and it will hurt dozens of families who rely on those jobs. It was the county’s largest taxpayer at one point and supported Lansing activities, just like a lot of companies do, and other local businesses.

Now the plant is losing money, is burning the last of its coal and will shutter in the next couple of months. There was a chance to repower with natural gas a decade ago, but that was fought against by some and those natural gas power plants, now supplying almost half of New York’s power, were built in Pennsylvania and downstate. With wholesale prices for electricity where they are today, it doesn’t make financial sense to repower, and burning coal is no longer an option in New York.

While there is a sadness in seeing this longtime county supporter going under, there is optimism that something new can replace it. NCR, National Cash Register, was also a Tompkins County staple. It’s gone, and while not replaced, the site is now home to new businesses at the South Hill business campus - a reimagined site and a rebirth. That’s the opportunity we are looking for with the power plant.

In addition to the county and town and school district pressing the state for cash to offset the tax loss due to closure, the owners of the power plant want to convert the Cayuga and Somerset power plants to data centers.

They’ve requested 100 megawatts for Somerset and 50 megawatts for Cayuga. Somerset has received a 10 megawatt allocation from the New York Power Authority under the western expansion program. The allocation is reduced rate power from Niagara Falls.

Cayuga has an application submitted for New York State Energy Research and Development’s ReCharge NY program and is expecting to hear an outcome next month. NYSERDA continues to work with the company on other opportunities both at Somerset and Cayuga. The company has applications submitted with Empire State Development.

Tompkins is working with that agency to make this data center a reality. The plant expects to also hear something on those applications next month.

The choice isn’t between a power plant and a data center. It’s between a data center and a stranded asset. The center will mean 70 new jobs. Will the same people who worked at the power plant be able to fill those jobs?

In some cases, yes, but in others no. We’ll lose some of the best jobs in the area, but these were going to be lost eventually. What we’re trying to do now is rescue 70 other jobs, continue the plant as a taxpaying entity and prepare for it to grow into something new, something that could take off in upstate New York where so many other businesses are closing.

Things change. I’ll miss the power plant. I miss Rogue’s Harbor, also soon to see a rebirth. I miss Linda’s Diner. Of all the original Dow companies, only General Electric is still part of the Dow.

We need Tompkins residents to call the governor, their local representatives like myself and Lansing Town Supervisor Ed LaVigne, asking them to support the power allocation to convert the plant to a data center. It’s only through community support that this can happen. And, if you can cook an egg, keep the yolk runny and not burn the bacon or toast, I know a diner that you can take over tomorrow.

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