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Downturn hard on subway-making town

Emma Jacobs

Welcome word arrived last month that, Alstom, the biggest manufacturer in the small Western New York city of Hornell had received a $194 million contract to overhaul the Port Authority's entire fleet of rail cars. Since subway car assembly halted in May, the economy built around the Hornell's major industry has been grinding along more slowly.


Manufacturing has what's called a big jobs multiplier, which is a big part of what makes manufacturing so sought after by economic development staff.  Just a year ago, when it starred in the National Geographic special, Ultimate Factories, transit manufacturer, Alstom had 800 workers on two shifts building subway cars. And that operation supported more parts suppliers, subcontractors, and restaurants than 800 people working in retail.

However, as Alstom's activity slowed, so did work for its supply chain. Tim Lloyd lost his job in quality management for TTA back in October.

"You know at that point," Lloyd said, "for a day or two you’re just like, 'OK, wow, I wasn’t really prepared for this.' And then what are you going to do. Start calling people. Start dumping your resume."

Lloyd's spent more than two decades with the various transit manufacturers in the area, always somehow been related to the company that occupied Hornell’s biggest plant. It's the same math that drove the career of his grandfather and a great-great grandfather. Unlike many old northeastern towns that have long since lost their original manufacturing trades, Hornell has refused to let its go. Now, Lloyd's been looking for work up to an hour's drive away while operations are down.

Jim Griffin, head of the City of Hornell's Industrial Development Agency (CHIDA) said, "It always was you know, ‘is it difficult to have all your eggs in one basket?’ And my answer usually was we’re glad we have a basket to have our eggs in." Griffin has tracked down a series of rail manufacturers over three decades to replace ones that have closed. 

Dan Porter, director of workforce development for Chemung, Schuyler, and Steuben counties says having an economy as focused as Hornell’s is a terrific model--when it works.

"Hornell and western Steuben [County] is a glowing example of, my goodness when you can do this and you can cluster them around and they’re all growing: the multiplier gets multiplied. It just becomes this wonderful flowering of economic activity. The problem becomes that the opposite of adding is subtracting. The opposite of multiplying is dividing."

Speaking after the announcement of the PATCO contract, Mayor Shawn Hogan told the Hornell Evening Tribune he expects other contracts will be awarded to Alstom, including a major New York City order. Knowingly or unknowingly inflicting rail puns on the reading public, he declared, "I think things are back on track." However, there's a long stretch of research and development ahead, meaning that the major hires for the factory floor won't begin for almost two years. Griffin told the Tribune, "at least we know now the work is coming."

Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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