Dunkirk Mayor Wilfred Rosas decided to stand with 20 other protesters last weekend in front of the Clarion Hotel on Lake Shore Drive in the city. Though not at the curb with the group who held signs to “Keep Our Hospital in Dunkirk” while hearing beeps of approval from passing motorists, Rosas watched with a clear understanding of the fine line between what’s best for the city he oversees and the northern Chautauqua County community as a whole.
At the moment, the Brooks-TLC Hospital System is nearing a final jeopardy. With losses totaling more than $45 million over five years, its closure seems as though it could be inevitable — by those currently employed and others who have since moved on.
Over the past week, Rosas has been in touch with Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office to make a pair of pleas if Brooks-TLC was to leave. First, he wants state funding so the 127,363-square-foot site at Central Avenue and Sixth Street can be repurposed.
Second, and most importantly, he wants to make sure low-income residents still have access to an emergency room and health care.
“Their leaving is going to create a gap in the central services to the poorest members of our community who do not have transportation,” he said. “Without any form of public transportation here, this is going to create an issue.”
Inside the hotel, Brooks-TLC spun a different narrative. Starting with Chris Lanski, 14-year chair of the board of directors, the hospital played the last-chance card pleading with those in attendance to make their voices heard so New York state would release more than $70 million to build a new facility in Fredonia.
Though the 125 in the room displayed some enthusiasm when asked, there’s no question there was a dark cloud of skepticism. Since 2008, Brooks-TLC — its board and administration — has done little to endear itself to the community. In fact, you could make a very strong case that the damage that has been done over those years is due to a lack of transparency.
When the going got real tough, like it did when Brooks did partner with UPMC from 2012 to 2015, there was a bunker mentality. Very little information was being shared about plans for the future as fiscal woes mounted at the Dunkirk location and the former Lakeshore Hospital in Irving.
Once the state announced a first round of funding totaling $56 million for a new site in March 2016, only one public meeting was held. The message then: we need to act fast to find a location and start building.
Over the last 5 1/2 years, that urgency was lost. Choosing a property off Route 20 east of the village in Pomfret set the project back two years due to a zoning issue. The current site, which previously housed Cornell Cooperative Extension, has no signs of activity.
In the meantime, the hospital has become a political football. Former state Sen. Catharine Young has been criticized — behind the scenes and in a letter in the OBSERVER from Shawn Smith, Hanover Republican chair — for being a part of the June 4 rally at a time when business in the state capital was just getting finished. Both Sen. George Borrello and Assemblyman Andrew Goodell were still in Albany or making their way back home during the 10 a.m. rally. Other leaders made a conscious decision to stay away, including Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel and Fredonia Mayor Douglas Essek.
Those elected officials who were in attendance for the event did so with the best of intentions. Pomfret town Supervisor Dan Pacos talked about shared services and growing a community, that includes the State University of New York at Fredonia. Without a health-care facility in the future, he said the region is at risk of losing more population and business.
“If we lose our local hospital, how many parents do you think will look to send their students to us for their education?” he said. “The college is a critical piece of this whole area’s economy, not just Fredonia’s, and it’s only one example of the possible negative impact of losing our hospital.”
But Rosas has trouble buying what the hospital rally was selling. He, as the city’s leader, was not allowed to be a part of discussions at a Hospital Reuse Development committee, which quit meeting after December 2019. Despite the lack of that invitation, the hospital administration and board still sought Rosas’ blessing on moving the site to neighboring Fredonia.
After being part of last Saturday’s gathering, he displayed a bittnerness over the constant closed-door attitude by the struggling operation. “We do not want it to go … we don’t understand why they can’t rebuild right there on that site just like the Buffalo Bills are going to do. … These are issues that are being talked about in our community,” he said.
Other than Natalie Luczkowiak, First Ward councilwoman, no other council representative was present at either event. That speaks to a bit of disinterest, frustration and uncertainty about what could possibly happen next.
Rosas does hold some clout as the most powerful Democrat in Chautauqua County. He has built a relationship with the key power brokers in Albany, which could mean there may be more to come on how Brooks-TLC moves forward.
“I feel confident that the governor will address the issues of concern for our city residents,” he said.
John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren. Send comments to [email protected] or call 716-366-3000, ext. 253.