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Farming or hi-tech park? One community weighs the options

The quiet farming community of Alabama, N.Y. sits amongst acres of farm and wetland. It’s also the site chosen for a new Science Technology and Manufacturing Park or STAMP.

The high-tech park has also been the subject of some public scrutiny, as Genesee County rates highly amongst top agricultural producers in the state. The project is also an example of when the values of agricultural communities are starting to rub up against an upstate development agenda focused around high-tech manufacturing.

“The first time somebody dressed in camo, carrying a hunting rifle walks through the STAMP project there’s going to be a swat team called," says Alabama resident Lorna Klotzbach. "None of us care if somebody in camo, carries a rifle down the road, because we’re all used to that. The rural character where people like to hunt, fish, snowmobile, ride horseback, you’re not going to be able to do that once all of these thousands of people come here.”

Other longtime residents join Klotzbach in arguing the tech park’s incompatible with the character of the area, and the most appropriate use of the land.

Senior Vice President of the Genesee County Economic Development Center, Mark Masse, says the STAMP project will provide a boost to the region’s economy.

“It’s technically New York state’s second mega site. With the recent investment that New York state has made in semiconductor, advanced nanotechnology, manufacturing, and research and development it’s a nice plan to have to extend all of that down the thruway towards Buffalo turning it into a high-tech corridor,” he says.

The STAMP’s already received over three million dollars in funding in two installments from the Empire State Development Corporation. Another half million has been pledged by the Regional Economic Development Council. Masse says the investments are well worth it.

“Our economic impact analysis that was done shows that the site has the potential for about 9,300 jobs on site with the potential to have additional job creation through supply chain build out anywhere between 30 and 50-thousand between Buffalo and Rochester.”

American Farmland Trust

When the STAMP was first proposed, the American Farmland Trust chimed in with concerned farmers and wrote a letter to the GCEDC. Senior Field Manger Diane Held was author and says taking the farmland out of production, endangers the upstate economy.  

“If this project goes through more significant is the additional growth that happens around an area like that. Some number of people who work at a place like that who want to live closer to where they work, so you start to get that creeping growing development, that in of itself is not a bad thing, you want businesses, jobs, growth, those are all good things. It’s just don’t do that on your farmland, because you can’t get your farmland back,” says Held.

Held says the additional traffic projected for the town would also impede local farm production.

Wayne Phelps, a 92-year-old resident, has lived in the Town of Alabama since he was three years old. He agrees additional traffic will make very difficult for farmers to take care of their crops.

“Two major issues are traffic and the widening of Route 77. At 77 there is 5 four-way intersections and there’s three or four thruway intersections," he says. "How are you going to put a superhighway down there and get across there, it’s not going to work.”

And there’s another complication. Currently, about ten homes sit over 1,243 acres designated for the STAMP. The GCEDC says no one will have to relocate, but resident Samuel Scarborough has another story.

“I talked to a friend who said they have to sell their house," Scarborough recalls. "They found out that it’s not going to be worth as much as they’d hoped. That means that they’re not going to pay them a fair market value or more, because they’re making them move.”

Community incentive package

The park is also supposed to bring municipal water to the area surrounding the site, as part of a $10.2 million community incentive package. Right now, those homes run on well water, and residents like Ben Falker are concerned they’ll be forced to pay for water they might not want.  

“Everybody’s got to pay that. If it goes by your house you have to run the hook-up anyway even if you don’t tap into the water, because in the future, down the road maybe a new owner would want water so it’s got to be there, because they don’t want to come back,” Falker says.

Falker says some local residents who initially supported the project because of the promised water supply, have discovered that less than half of them will be able to access it.

Masse defends the build, particularly because the nano-tech companies that the STAMP’s hoping to attract, require brand new buildings for manufacturing. But so far no marquee tenants have committed the site.

“We do hope that within the next five years to hopefully have an anchor tenant to start construction.”

Smart Growth guidelines

The plan also had to sidestep some guidelines in the county’s Smart Growth ordinance, intended to balance development and farming viability. Paul Beyer is the Director of Smart Growth planning in New York State.

“We didn’t override the local plan, in fact the Genesee County is now in the process of incorporating this project into their Smart Growth law, however if a project doesn’t meet all of the Smart Growth criteria and it’s not practical for it to meet all of the criteria we don’t want to say no to a project that can create hundreds of jobs for a struggling upstate economy,” Beyer says.

Over $36 million in state funding is still required for the project to create a roadway, signage and the waterlines. Beyer insists the choice of this site will enable the project to be sustainable.

“Any advanced manufacturing projects, especially in a rural area are somewhat risky," he says. "You’re not certain that you’re going to be able to attract enough development for full build out, however you have to take chances like this. If it works it can end up being a model for both job creation and sustainable development.”

But resident Dennis Phelps believes, “if this project goes it Genesee County as we know it will never be the same.”

The STAMP project‘s expected to take 20 years to be fully built. The GCEDC continues to move forward with the project, which recently received zoning approval.

Letter to the Genesee County Economic Development Center from American Farmland Trust. by Ashley Hassett

WBFO/Western New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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