In the wrong place anyway, Ogdensburg, N.Y., takes giant blow from hard times

December 24, 1991|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

OGDENSBURG, N.Y. -- Christmas in America, 1991: behind the twinkling lights, gloom; beneath the gaudy tinsel, reality; and beyond the merriment, anxiety.

another had been evicted, and the two others were in trouble with the police.

"The recession . . . exacerbates problems that are already there," he said. "It is such a fundamental thing for a person to have a job, adequate security. Take that away, and with everything else that is going wrong it just becomes unmanageable."

He echoes Mr. Kelly: "I can't think of a time that has been like this. There is a malaise, and people's sense of resilience is not the same."

Beneath the gaudy tinsel

The Christmas tree in Randy Dewey's trailer home is heavy with garlands but light on gifts.

An income of around $150 a week -- his wife's wages as a cashier, supplemented by assistance --does not afford much for presents.

"It's just so hard this time of the year. You don't want to see nothing under the tree," says Mr. Dewey, an unemployed painter and father of three.

There had been scant prospect of much under the family tree until the arrival of one of Mr. Kelly's packages, delivered by volunteers from the Morristown Fire and Rescue Company 1.

Mr. Dewey lost his job at the state-run hospital in 1988 and has since been able to find only casual work as a house painter. This winter has idled him.

"It's rough for a lot of people," he says.

Across the county in another trailer, Bill Waiculonis welcomes a package-laden Jim Bogardus, Morristown's fire chief, into his untidy home where his wife, Dawn, is making lunch for their three children.

"We don't live too high," he says. "We live within our means, or we try to."

Husband and wife work at a local hotel, earning about $150 a week between them.

"The way the economy is, everybody's cut back," he said. "Everything's going up, but wages aren't. You can't find another job."

The children, he said, will get for Christmas "what we can offer, which isn't a hell of a lot. Mostly clothes and a couple of toys for the youngest."

Beyond the merriment

Jim Bouchey is a big man who enjoys playing Santa. "Happy holidays," he booms as he hands out the presents.

It is the third year he has driven around St. Lawrence County and delivered Christmas packages.

This year Jim Bouchey is as merry as ever, handing out help and happiness to those most in need of a little of both. But there is a fear lurking in the background: his own layoff.

For 10 years he has worked in the maintenance unit of the state-funded St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, for decades the steadiest local employer.

For the first time this year, 170 jobs were cut. And there is talk of worse to come as the state grapples with its budget crisis.

"I don't think there's a person down there who doesn't worry, the way the state is," he said. "Even the factories we have are moving out. This is the worst we have ever seen."

"The federal government has to step in," Mr. Bouchey says. "We can send all that money to Russia, Yugoslavia and all those places. To me, charity begins at home."

Fire Chief Bogardus has noticed a striking change in local malls this holiday: lots of shoppers but few bags.

"Previous years, it was bags, bags, bags," he says. "They're holding back this year, worse than ever."

The caution affects Mr. Bogardus' own insurance business. He is writing 40 percent fewer new auto policies these days.

Trying to work Ogdensburg out of the downturn is Edmund Russell, administrative director of the St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency.

It is his job to turn history on its head, defy geography and overcome climate to persuade employers to come here.

"I think we have to change the mix of our employment here, become less resource-based," he says.

Help may be coming from across St. Lawrence River. ACanadian companies look for a toehold in the United States, Ogdensburg offers something it has never been able to before: proximity to corporate headquarters.

Says Mr. Russell: "I think, over the next three or four years, thawill improve the economy. Obviously the American economy has to improve too, because we aren't going to do it by ourselves.

"We are still on the periphery of the U.S. economy. That is nogoing to change."

The future, he says, could do just that: "Strange as it seems, don't think it's bleak."

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