Longtime Hornell IDA director Jim Griffin reflects on decades guiding development efforts

IDA executive director Jim Griffin retiring after 47 years guiding Hornell economic development

Chris Potter
The Evening Tribune

HORNELL — Jim Griffin has quite literally seen it all at the Hornell Industrial Development Agency. 

Griffin, the only executive director the IDA has ever known, was there at its founding in 1974. He began to oversee development efforts at a switch point in Hornell’s history. The railroad, the city’s economic lifeblood for generations, had fallen on hard times with hundreds out of work and morale in the community at its nadir.  

Hornell faced the very real prospect of losing its anchor industry, and a large piece of its identity. 

“Everybody says how wonderful it was back then, but back then the railroad had shut down, there was no jobs. It was a disaster,” Griffin recalled. “When we formed the IDA we hired a PR firm to come up with a motto, ‘The Hornell spirit: Believe in it.’ The gist of that was not to sell Hornell to the outside, but to get people in Hornell feeling better about themselves. The Tribune had a front page article with a picture, the little train that could going uphill. That was us going forward.” 

Today, the little train that could reaches the top of the mountain. Griffin and the IDA are expected to put the finishing touches on a financial agreement with Alstom for a major expansion project on Shawmut Drive that will set the Hornell workforce up for sustained success over the next decade, and possibly much longer. When the final i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, Griffin will step down from the post he’s held the last 47 years leading the IDA. 

Hornell Industrial Development Agency Executive Director Jim Griffin is retiring after 47 years guiding Hornell's economic development efforts.

“I wanted to retire for a couple years, but I didn’t want to leave until I saw this Alstom project to completion,” Griffin said. “I’ll stay on as a consultant for the next year and a half as they need me, especially over the next six months as we get the Alstom building in the ground. I’m not walking away, I’m just stepping down. 

“It’s been a very rewarding career. I’ve seen Hornell grow.” 

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'For a little city, we’ve done very well'

Alstom’s project at 3 Shawmut Park Dr., a new 135,000 square feet rail car manufacturing facility, will help the company fulfill an initial $769 million order for 200 cars from Metra to service the Chicago metropolitan area. The contract is expected to create around 250 new skilled manufacturing jobs at the Hornell facility, and help preserve another 400 positions. 

Alstom considered other locations for the project, but the IDA began laying the groundwork to put Hornell’s best foot forward long before Metra awarded the contract in March. In the end, Alstom decided the Shawmut Park site and an expanded footprint in Hornell was the best option for the company. All told, the project is expected to total close to a $50 million investment in Hornell. 

“That’s a key to the future,” said Griffin. “Nothing is guaranteed over 5-10 years, but they will now be the only manufacturer of stainless steel shells in the United States. Every new car, every transit car is built around a shell like that, whether it’s stainless steel or whatnot. It really sets up Hornell to play a key role in transit manufacturing for the whole United States for many years to come. For a little city, we’ve done very well.” 

For Griffin, it was one final capstone to a career that got off to a rocky start. Griffin recalls the IDA borrowing money from the Chamber of Commerce just to buy stationary in its earliest days. Undeterred and unwilling to watch his hometown slide into irrelevance, Griffin and the IDA resolved to buy nearly all of the railroad infrastructure in Hornell, everything but the main line through the city. Griffin secured $400,000 in federal funding for the purchase, but his plan faced considerable pushback from Hornell residents. 

“We had some major people in Hornell, wealthy people from big families, come to a public hearing and say the IDA has no right to buy that shop, leave it with the railroad and they’ll figure out a way to use it,” Griffin remembered. “We obviously ignored them. I think if we had not ignored them Hornell would have done what a lot of other railroad cities did, and that’s die. Right in the middle of their cities they have piles of bricks. We could have been in the same position.” 

Instead, Alstom’s Hornell workforce stands around 800 today with the potential for growth when the Metra project comes online. Hornell’s skilled laborers are presently at work producing America’s first high speed rail cars for Amtrak. The first car is expected to enter service later this year.

Finding sustained success wasn’t an easy road. Griffin and the IDA brought several rail companies to Hornell that eventually went under, but he remained persistent. When Morrison-Knudsen ended operations in 1996, he traveled to Paris to encourage GEC-Alstom, as it was known at the time, to enter the American market. Not long thereafter Griffin was in a New York City skyscraper with a view of the Statue of Liberty, signing a contract for GEC-Alstom to take over the Hornell shops. 

“Alstom has been great to us, to our community. They’ve hired a lot of people,” said Griffin. “They’ve had down times too, everybody does, but they were strong enough to come through it. Now look at what they’re doing.” 

Land has been flattened ahead of construction for a new 135,000 square foot rail car manufacturing facility on Shawmut Drive, just north of Alstom's Plant 2.

IDA influence extends into retail 

Alstom’s presence in the Maple City helped Hornell land a number of successful manufacturing companies who service the rail industry. Several are located in industrial parks constructed by the IDA, which are now near full capacity. 

The IDA’s efforts over Griffin’s tenure have created a good problem — unless new sites are developed, such as at the old St. James Hospital, Hornell has largely maxed out its industrial potential. 

“We’re getting inquiries from all over for manufacturing space in the area. We don’t have any, and we don’t have any place to build any,” said Griffin. “We’re working with the county IDA to find places for companies. Hornell is pretty much built out right now. I didn’t think I’d ever say that. We have some space left in the South Yards, but that’s about it.” 

The IDA’s influence extends beyond the realm of manufacturing. In the 1990s, the IDA bought land from St. James Hospital just off Route 36 — “100 acres of cornfield in wetlands,” Griffin recalls — with dreams of turning it into a shopping plaza. 

The IDA enlisted a developer out of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to take on the project. In a fateful stroke of luck, a growing retail giant named Walmart was looking into entering New York state at that time. 

“We went down to Bentonville with the developer and met with Walmart people and told them we wanted them to build in Hornell,” Griffin said. “They draw population circles, and they had Wellsville, Dansville, Bath and Hornell in four circles. Hornell was in the middle. The developer said ‘I got Wegmans going in there and we’d like you with us.’ The rest of it was history.” 

The project turned Hornell into a retail destination for residents from Steuben, Allegany and Livingston counties, driving considerable sales tax revenue. Anchored by Walmart and Wegmans, the Hornell Plaza currently features just one vacant storefront. Applebee's and Dunkin' developments were added over the years, while a Lowe’s store was constructed across the street. A business class Hampton Inn hotel is in the works with IDA assistance just north of the plaza. 

The IDA’s impact even extends beyond Hornell’s borders. In the days when it could operate in the town of Hornellsville, the IDA was instrumental in saving Crowley Foods of Arkport. 

“They were under orders from the federal government to shut down because of their sewer system,” Griffin said. “We got a grant to run water and sewer lines from Hornell all the way to Arkport so Crowley’s could get into the city’s sewer system. We saved Crowley’s and all the jobs up there and all the farmers that sold to them. That’s still in operation today.” 

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A team effort 

While Griffin has been the driving force behind the IDA for decades, the small staff received some support a few years ago when longtime Hornell mayor Shawn Hogan came on as an executive consultant after retiring from elected office. 

“Shawn has been fantastic. He’s been a key to the federal grants we’ve gotten,” Griffin said. “Alstom was looking to put this plant somewhere else. We had to put together quite a program to convince them this is the place, including some federal incentives that Shawn was critical in getting those together.” 

The consultant position continued the pair's working relationship from Hogan's tenure in office, when the IDA and the City worked closely on projects over the years. 

"Griff is a very knowledgable guy as evidenced by the high regard other economic developers hold him nationally and in New York state," said Hogan. "With the achievement awards he's received from international and state economic development councils, it goes without saying he’s been instrumental in moving the city and the region forward with his expertise and his knowledge of economic development programs.

"I learned a lot from Griff. We had a good synergy over the years between the two of us. It’s been a privilege to work with him." 

Griffin credited the many IDA board members that served the organization over the years. 

“The people that I’ve had on the IDA boards have been fantastic,” he said. “Sam Nasca was appointed at the first meeting of the IDA. Sam has been there with me right up until he got relieved in December. People like George Prete, Ernie Weyand. The board has always been a very unique group of individuals who have one thing in common, and that’s the health and growth of the Hornell area. 

“We worked as a team. They always gave me leeway to do what I needed to do and put deals together. When I went out to Boise, Idaho to talk to Morrison-Knudsen, not one of my board members knew where I was going or who I was talking to. They had that type of confidence and always had my back. That’s so important in this business, that your board understands what you do and gives you the confidence to go out and do it.” 

Griffin’s IDA has had a significant hand in guiding Hornell’s economic fortunes for nearly a half century. Mayor John Buckley, who now serves on the IDA board, said Griffin’s public profile may not match his profound impact on the city. 

“You are an institution unto yourself, you’ve been here since Day 1 since the inception of the IDA. You’ve been invaluable to the city, the community, to the IDA,” Buckley said. “You’ve done more over the years than I think most people realize bringing economic development here to the city, just being in the game keeping your name out there, all the networking you’ve done over the years that has benefited the city immensely in ways people probably don’t understand, and probably for the most part never will understand.” 

Hogan said Griffin has been a leader with a vision throughout his career at the IDA, one who at times saw plans through despite some public opposition. 

"There’s always naysayers, and there’s always leaders who are the people in the trenches,” said Hogan. “You’re going to have critics and people who snipe at you from the bushes. Thank God Griff didn’t allow that to deter him and kept moving forward. It’s not easy, it’s not an easy environment. There’s tremendous competition to create jobs. You’re competing against other counties, communities, states and countries. The proof is in the pudding. He’s been successful. I’m happy he’s finally decided to hang up his spurs."

Chris Potter can be reached at cpotter@gannett.com or on Twitter @ChrisPotter413. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.