N.Y. town harbors bad memories of business proposal

Mechanicsville worries that entrepreneur's plan has familiar ring

March 11, 2002|By Dan Barry | Dan Barry,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MECHANICVILLE, N.Y. - One day in January, a Canadian entrepreneur appeared out of the northern blue and said that of all the places in North America, he had chosen this proud but wobbling little city as the future site of a new company in the suddenly exciting business of emergency preparedness.

"Mechanicville will be put on the map," the entrepreneur, Raymond Henry, explained over his cellphone. "They have to be prepared. It's a small city to receive 500 people a week. They will open restaurants; they will open hotels."

Talk like that tends to get attention in this city whose population is plummeting, a city with no hotels and whose best-known restaurant, Joyce's Log Cabin, is shuttered. Mechanicville is hardly the only upstate community pining for a savior to restore its luster, but Henry's proposal received particular attention. It could - could - mean the city's first economic boost since the dominant paper mill closed a generation ago.

A memorandum of understanding was signed. A news conference was held. And the Web site for Henry's new company, the Cogesur Group, now includes references to the "First International Municipal and Emergency Management Center, Mechanicville, N.Y.," alongside an icon of an ever-fluttering flag.

But hesitation lingers in Mechanicville. People here have not forgotten the time, a quarter-century ago, when a man named Bob John Ray came through town. This smooth talker with three first names was down at Joyce's Log Cabin for a few days, claiming to have pockets deep enough to pull out new cars for anyone who made him chuckle or weep.

He vanished, of course

The few people who did not smell a flimflammer jockeyed to become his new best buddy, which meant that he never had to pay his bill - not as long as he kept sending folks to a local car dealership to choose the color of their new Mercury Cougars. He vanished, of course, but he did give Mechanicville a metaphor to describe anything too good to be true, as in:

Here comes another Bob John Ray.

This is not to say that Henry's integrity is in question. But Bob John Ray references are definitely back in vogue, and here is why.

So far there is not much more to Cogesur's plan, beyond Henry's assurances of an imminent $20 million investment from people about whom nothing is known, except that they divined opportunity in the Bush administration's recent promise to spend more money on emergency preparedness. Plus, the whole plan hinges on voters' approving the sale of a soon-to-be-vacated elementary school to Henry at a better rate than you could find at the Family Dollar store in town. (That photograph on the company's Web site, the one with Cogesur's logo already adorning a sign outside the school building? It's just a composite.)

Then there was Henry's casual inquiry into whether the city would be willing to double the assessment of the 5-acre property, to nearly $12 million. Henry said that a higher assessment would help in financing the project. Anthony Luciano, the city assessor, said that in his 12 years in office, "no one's ever asked me to raise an assessment."

City officials want Cogesur so much that they are about ready to learn French, but first things first. For starters, Henry has to show them the money. That is something that another visitor, one with three first names, never did.

`Don't scare him off'

"You hate to blow him off," said William E. Connors, the city's administrator of community development. "I'm the guy that's the most cautious and most concerned about his ability. I'm the one who keeps bringing it up and people keep saying, `Don't scare him off. Don't scare him off. We blow him off and he opens up in Troy, and we're kicking ourselves.'"

The last thing Mechanicville needs is another kick to its collective head.

It was once a microcosm of American industry, with paper rollers humming 24 hours a day at the Westvaco mill, freight trains rumbling through one of the country's largest railroad transfer stations, and streets bustling with immigrants and their children. The city may not have been as vital as Albany, 20 miles to the southwest, but it had a sense of place, and commemorated many of the local men who died in World War II with a plaque inside the elementary school. There are 44 names.

Now, the evidence of decline can be found in the census statistics kept in City Hall - the population of 5,000 is less than half of what it was in the 1920s - and in City Hall itself, where white paint peels from the facade. Even the tornado that tore through here in 1998, causing $50 million in damage, seemed almost gratuitously cruel. Did it really have to knock over one of the old mill's smokestacks?

Mechanicville survived that twister just as it has survived all the other setbacks. The school district began to build a new elementary school, scheduled to open in the fall of 2003. Local officials were still wondering what to do with the old school when there came an inquiry from Canada.

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