By Melissa Stagnaro
Special to The Evening Sun
CHENANGO – “I might lose you,” said Donna Jones.
The Chenango County planning director was in her car, speaking on her cell phone’s hand free device. It’s a common refrain for her and others who try to make cell phone calls in and around Chenango County.
“Depending on which carrier you have, once you’re a mile to the east or west of Norwich, you lose service,” she said.
For Jones, who lives in Mount Upton, the spotty cell coverage is more than just an inconvenience.
“I see it as a safety issue,” she said. “Say I’m driving home and have car trouble. I can’t call anyone because I don’t have cell service.”
Jones isn’t the only one who considers it a problem.
“Quality wireless service is now an essential part of modern U.S. infrastructure,” Senator Charles Schumer said, in a letter he penned to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
In mid-October, Schumer accused network carriers of misrepresenting coverage in Upstate New York, to the detriment of residents and visitors. The senator has asked residents to report dead zones in their areas on his website, www.schumer.senate.gov, so the matter can be investigated.
For emergency management officials and first responders, communications can also be a challenge. According to Chenango County Fire Coordinator and Emergency Management Director Matthew Beckwith, the county’s signature rolling hills are the issue.
“Radios don’t follow the contours of the ground,” Beckwith explained.
When Beckwith first became involved with the fire service as a teenager, emergency communications depended on a 3-tower system that left 60 to 65 percent of the county without coverage.
“We needed a new radio system for years,” the emergency management officer said, explaining that the equipment was so outdated replacement parts had to be either purchased on eBay or rebuilt.
The chance to upgrade the system came in 2007, at the tail end of the Public Safety Building project. After evaluating a number of different options, Beckwith said they chose the solution they saw as the most cost-effective for the county and end users.
The project took four years and cost the county $6 million. The system came on-line in 2011.
“There are a couple of spots without optimal coverage,” Beckwith admits of the 9-tower analog system that was installed. But with between 92 and 93 percent of the county now covered, he says it’s a vast improvement over the previous system.
To close the remaining coverage gaps would have tripled the cost of the total project to $18 million and required the county to install a digital trunk system. This would have also created an additional expense for the departments who use the system, Beckwith said, as buying compatible equipment would have cost much as $1,000 - $1,200 for each portable unit.
Like the county’s previous tower system, much of Chenango’s infrastructure is aging, according to Steve Palmatier.
As the county’s workforce and industrial development liaison, Palmatier sees the implications of this every day.
“What we need are shovel-ready industrial sites with city water, city sewer, rail, three-phase electric power and natural gas,” he said.
Those are the basics site selectors are looking for, according to Palmatier, and what Chenango needs in order to be competitive in attracting new manufacturers. Currently, only a handful of sites in Bainbridge, Sherburne and Greene come close to meeting these requirements.
Palmatier is doing what he can to help close the gaps. One of his goals is to bring natural gas to some of these sites.
“The only natural gas service we have is supplied by NYSEG,” Palmatier said. Access is limited to customers in Smyrna, Plymouth, Norwich, North Norwich, Oxford and South New Berlin.
The line, built in the early 1960’s, is currently running at full capacity, which means adding new customers – particularly industrial customers – poses a problem.
“If a business has a need for guaranteed natural gas service, I can’t promise them that,” he said. “It’s very hard to compete if you don’t have that resource.
Why is natural gas service so important?
“Effectively, natural gas is the least expensive energy source that we have in the country today,” Palmatier explained. “It’s also the least polluting of all fossil fuels.”
As an example of what this can mean to a company, Palmatier cites a Sherburne manufacturer that has another location in western New York, where they have access to natural gas. The local facility, on the other hand, uses a combination of fuel oil and propane.
“Their costs per day are 20 cents more per dollars of sales,” he said. With natural gas as an option, they could turn that around. “So for every dollar (they) sell, it would add 20 cents to the profit margin.”
When Palmatier looks at northwest Chenango County, he sees not only potential customers for natural gas, but also a potential supply.
According to Palmatier, 38 producing wells in that area currently feed into the Dominion pipeline near Morrisville.
“Instead of pushing that gas into the interstate system, we are actually looking at running a pipeline from Smyrna,” he said.
He is working closely with Emkey, the company who holds some of Norse Energy’s former assets in the region, on the project.
The result could supply natural gas to residential and commercial customers in Smyrna and Sherburne, as well as feed into a potential microgrid project the village of Sherburne is considering for its municipal electric system.
And there is the potential to push the gas to Columbus as well, making it an option for Chobani if the yogurt manufacturer is interested.
“These conversations are just starting,” Palmatier said.
A second natural gas project is also in the works, with a goal of bringing natural gas from Bainbridge to Greene, where Raymond would be the anchor customer. For this, Palmatier is working with Leatherstocking Gas Company, a partnership between Mirabito Fuel Group and Corning Natural Gas.
“It’s been named a priority project for the region,” Palmatier said.
However, it all hinges on the construction of the Constitution pipeline, which has been delayed because of DEC permitting. A second option they are looking at is to push gas from producing wells in Preston.
“It’s probably not viable, but I feel everything should be on the table,” he said.
One of the reasons Palmatier is so focused on natural gas is because of the cost savings it can offer to manufacturers over other utilities.
“New York State is just expensive for electricity,” he said. The state’s high tariff system makes it hard for New York manufacturers to compete, he explained. And here in Chenango, where three-phase power is not broadly available, it’s even more difficult.
There’s also the fact that much of the existing energy infrastructure, including the New York Power Grid, is aging, as is municipal infrastructure, like water and sewer lines.
“All of these things are going to burden municipalities over the next 25 years,” he said. “That’s going to pose difficulties for us logistically and financially.”
And then there is the matter of actual logistics.
“Chenango County is transportation challenged,” said Commerce Chenango President and CEO Steve Craig.
The county’s two interstate highway exits and the majority of its active rail are all at the eastern edge of the county, he explained, while Chenango’s ‘population and industrial core’ runs through the center of the county.
The city of Norwich itself is 34 miles from the nearest 4-lane highway system, and sits on a 45 mile-long section of the Utica Main Rail Line that has been out of service for 9 years. Craig believes restoring that rail corridor, which was put out of commission after it was heavily damaged by flooding in 2006, is the key to solving that problem.
“Rail is the most fuel efficient and therefore least costly mode of transport for large, heavy items and bulky commodities,” the chamber executive said.
Currently the lack of rail through the center of the county is making it more difficult to attract new manufacturers to the area.
“Not having it means not being considered,” he said.
Close to $5.9 million in funding has already been secured from federal, state and local sources for the project.
“The plan is to restore 30 washouts, repair track defects and replace defective or substandard crossties and bridge timbers between Chenango Forks and Earlville,” Craig said. The 45.54 miles stretch has 58 bridges, many of which will require extensive work. “Our engineers estimate the cost at $5.1 million.”
Once restored to service, the rail corridor would continue to be serviced by the New York Susquehanna and Western Railway (NYSW), which operates over 500 miles of track in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Some critics have questioned whether it is worth the investment to repair the track, as few customers were using the line before it was decommissioned. They have proposed other uses for the corridor, such as a rails-to-trails project. But Craig is adamant that the railroad should not be abandoned.
“It would be gone for good,” he said. “New investment required to re-establish active rail would be enormous.”
Nor, he says, would a rail trail be an easy undertaking.
“A government or non-profit entity would have to commit to building, insuring and maintaining what would amount to a one-lane road, wide enough for safe, two-way traffic by pedestrians and cyclists,” he said.
Repurposing the corridor would also require more than just removing the rails.
“A cost of $1 million a mile is not out of the question,” he said.
According to Craig, restoring the rail line and diverting some of what is going in and out of the county by truck has the added benefit of safeguarding other transportation infrastructure.
“Diverting shipments to rail would have the effect of reducing wear and tear on highways,” he explained.
He and other leaders continue to press state policy makers to improve the state highways that run through the county. Despite their advocacy, State Highway 12 remains an issue.
“The recent upgrades in Greene have been a big help,” he said. But other portions of the roadway are still a problem, particularly on the northern end of the county.
For businesses, the concern isn’t only about transporting goods. According to Palmatier, they’re also concerned about a more precious cargo.
“They’ve had employees lose their lives on the way to work,” he said.
Another valuable piece of Chenango’s transportation infrastructure also faces challenges.
“The county’s Lt. Warren E. Eaton Airport faces a medium-term financial challenge, as the trust fund set up to support it is being drawn down,” Craig said.
“A runway extension has been discussed as a way to attract larger aircraft to use the airport, which would generate fees and fuel sales.”
Two miles south of the county-owned airport, the City of Norwich is focused on its own infrastructure.
“The City is currently engaged in several important infrastructure initiatives, which have strong implications for economic development,” said City of Norwich Economic Development Specialist Todd Dreyer.
According to Dreyer, one of the city’s key initiatives is construction of a new water treatment plant.
City of Norwich Mayor Joseph Maiurano explained why the project is necessary.
“The plant is over 100 years old and is not efficient,” he said, and a “constant maintenance nightmare.”
According to the mayor, the new plant be gravity fed using surface water and therefore more energy efficient. It will also require fewer chemicals.
“It will serve all of the city and the greater Norwich area with capacity for future development,”Maiurano said.
The project, expected to cost $6.1 million, is in the final planning stages. The city has secured a commitment from USDA Rural Development for a total of $5 million towards the project. They plan to seek bond funding and/or grants to cover the remaining $1.1 million, according to economic development reports.
Norwich is looking at other potential infrastructure upgrades as well.
“City staff are also looking into cost savings to be gained from converting streetlights to LEDs,” Dreyer said. Converting the city’s 27 streetlights will cost around $10,000.
There are also discussions about building a rail siding on the industrial land on the north side of Norwich to help stimulate development. The project would require a $200,000 investment.
“We’re exploring ways to improve broadband availability as well,” the city official added.
Broadband is a topic that has the interest of policy makers and businesses alike from across the county. Why now?
“New York State has recognized how 70 percent of Upstate New York cannot access broadband speeds at 100 Mbps download, and is looking to match private investment with state investment dollar to dollar,” Jones said.
With the New NY Broadband Program, Governor Andrew Cuomo has pledged $500 million to improve broadband access to areas like Chenango. With a dollar for dollar match, that will translate to a billion dollars worth of development.
“The state has never before invested this heavily in this infrastructure,” said Jones. “It’s expected that the State Broadband office will be taking applications in early 2016, so now is the time to prepare for our ask.”
Assessing the area’s needs is a collaborative process on the county and regional level, with the involvement of the Southern Tier East Regional Planning Development Board.
According to Jones, businesses aren’t the only ones that stand to benefit.
“Think about your cell phone and data plan and tablet,” said Jones. “With more apps, more video, more music, more games… more bandwidth is used. You can see why higher speeds are necessary.”