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One year later, Gowanda still reeling after correctional facility's closure

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Posted at 5:42 PM, Mar 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-29 18:34:27-04

GOWANDA, N.Y. (WKBW) — In a village of a little more than 2,500 people, when 600 jobs are lost, the impact is felt just about everywhere.

"It's kind of detrimental," said Wanda Koch, owner of the Wicked Glen, a restaurant along Cattaraugus Creek in the center of town.

"There were a lot of people here that lived here and raised their families here and patronized all our businesses, all the grocery stores, the gas stations, and now they're gone," said Koch.

New York State shut down the Gowanda Correctional Facility in March 2021, impacting an estimated 600 employees, many of whom were relocated. When then-Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the closure, his office said it was for cost savings and a declining prison population.

As of March 29, 2022, the total incarcerated population in state correctional facilities is 30,640. According to a spokesperson from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, this is a nearly 58 percent decline in population since 1999.

Gowanda Correctional Facility
Gowanda Correctional Facility, March 2022

But Gowanda village leaders say the decision to close the correctional facility was improperly done on a whiplash timeline of 90 days.

"It was a demoralizing decision in a lot of ways," said David Smith, Village of Gowanda Mayor. "For one, many of those fine employees had to relocate or lost their jobs. For those that continue to live here but are driving other places, they're no longer getting gas here, they're no longer stopping in our stores to do their shopping because they're working in another area. So we've felt an economic impact because of that too."

Smith and other community stakeholders have submitted numerous FOIL requests seeking data and financial information to justify the closure, but have been repeatedly denied access.

"We've asked for financials, we've asked for the justification that they would use to show the facility didn't make economic sense to operate, we've received none of that from Governor Cuomo, nor Governor Hochul. Those are required by statute and they've given us none of that," said Andy Burr, a Cattaraugus County legislator.

Burr says he believes the state does not take him or his peers in Gowanda seriously.

The state says the decision was based on a variety of factors, including physical infrastructure, program offerings, facility security level, and its proximity to other facilities.

But the other concern locals have is what the future holds for the vacant prison campus.

"Who's left holding the bag? The local community that's just got a monstrosity that's empty," said Smith.

Many worry history will repeat itself.

In the neighboring town of Perrysburg sits a massive campus that was once the J.N. Adam Memorial Hospital. It has been abandoned by the state since the 1990s, becoming an eyesore for the community and a playground for vandals. Locals fear the same will happen to Gowanda Correctional.

JN Adam Medical Center
Abandoned J.N. Adam Memorial Hospital. March 2022.

"The state has yet to even respond to giving us any kind of a reasonable reuse plan or any kind of an economic redevelopment package to be able to do something with [the prison]," said Burr.

In March 2021, a representative from DOCCS told 7 News, "The Department will work with the Office of General Services and the Empire State Development Corporation in an effort to identify a re-use for the facility."

Twelve months later, 7 News followed up with the Empire State Development Corporation to see what progress has been made.

In a statement, a spokesperson said, "Empire State Development is committed to working with local stakeholders to find new and innovative ways to repurpose shuttered prisons so they can add jobs and investment back into the local economy. We will continue to assist with redevelopment for this asset that best fits the needs of their community."

Gowanda officials hope Governor Hochul will work with them in their fight for this community's future.

"If you get progress, fantastic, if you don't you learn from it and you move on with what you've got," said Smith.