Friday, February 17, 2017

2016 was a big year for local Boy Scouts

Some readers may not know that I am the president of the board of the Iroquois Trail Council, which serves the cub scouts, boy scouts, and explorers in eastern Niagara, Orleans, Genesee, Wyoming and Livingston counties.

Last weekend, the council held its annual dinner at which we celebrated the 2016 accomplishments of our scouts and the volunteers who deliver quality programming and mentorship to them. It was nice to reflect on such a great year and share with them the good news of what they did and who they impacted.

That got me thinking that perhaps I should share the same with the readers of this paper because everyone, in some way, is a stakeholder in the Scouting movement. You or your organization might have donated to the BSA. Your son or grandson might be a scout.  You might have bought popcorn from a scout, which helped him go to summer camp. Your community might have been impacted by a service project or food drive. You might have even been a scout yourself at one time and place value in what that contributed to your development.

You can rest assured that your investment, be it monetary or emotional, in the local scouting program paid huge dividends in 2016.

This can be said with certainty because the Iroquois Trail Council was officially recognized by the BSA as a gold level council last year. The BSA’s Journey to Excellence system rates each unit and council on a wide array of metrics that ensure effectiveness and sustainability of their programs. Less than a quarter of all 272 councils nationwide achieve the gold ranking in a given year and 2016 was the second time in 3 years we reached the pinnacle.

The council’s gold status was based on a cumulative effort of our small regular staff, our summer camp staff and our army of 1,000 volunteers working hard to develop tomorrow’s community leaders through Scouting’s unique outdoors-oriented program.

Just check out these amazing numbers:

20: That’s the percentage that fall recruitment exceeded 2015’s numbers. We recruited an incredible number of new scouts despite the local population of available youth having tailed off dramatically in the past few years as young people have left WNY. Boys want to be scouts!

20: That’s also the percentage of cub scout-aged boys in our five-county region who are cub scouts. It’s pretty awesome to think that one out of every five boys is a scout.

55: That’s how many young men earned the Eagle Scout award in our council in 2016. Each one oversaw a public service project that impacted a community or non-profit. These scouts and their peers renovated veterans’ museums, outfitted parks with bird houses and bat houses, and brought flag retirement boxes to local town halls.  

80: That’s the percentage of our scouts who camped in 2016. We led all 9 councils in upstate New York and Vermont by a wide margin…for the tenth year in a row. Our scouts love the outdoors, which offers a stark contrast to the world we live in which is so addicted to computers, phones, and televisions.

100: This is the number of local organizations that host our units’ meetings. It might be your church, fire hall, conservation club, or police headquarters.

400: That’s how many scouts and leaders from the Mormon Church visited our beloved Camp Dittmer in one week as a part of our new Zion’s Camp program which has made Camp Dittmer an international destination for the Church of Latter-Day Saints thanks to its proximity to their holy ground of Hill Cumorah in the Finger Lakes. 

2,500: This is the number of scouts and explorers now served by our council.

20,000: That’s how many recorded hours our scouts gave in terms of service to projects that weren’t necessarily Eagle projects. I wouldn’t be surprised if just as many hours went unrecorded. These scouts cleaned up the Letchworth Trail, participated in Veterans Day ceremonies, and ran food drives.

25,000: That’s how many pounds of food the scouts collected in those food drives. Those 12.5 tons of canned and boxed goods were then distributed to food pantries throughout the region.   

While all those numbers are pretty significant, their impact can’t be measured. The scouting program has an incredible transformative effect on boys and young men; the foundation of character and maturity that it gives them puts them on the path to becoming great husbands, fathers, and leaders -- God knows we need that in this day and age.

To learn more about what we do at the Iroquois Trail Council, visit our website at

From the 20 February 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: Finding Comet Encke, a comet rich in history

Last week you no doubt saw the media celebration of three celestial events occurring all at the same time. There was excitement over a snow moon, a lunar eclipse, and Comet 45P making its closest appearance to Earth.

A lot of people were excited about the possibilities, but ended up being completely down in the dumps about the reality.

I told you in this column that the lunar eclipse would be unspectacular and that it was. And, skywatchers who had expected to see the comet were let down, too. It surely wasn’t visible with the naked eye, binoculars and most backyard telescopes. Readers of this column might have known that, because my preview of 2017’s skies didn’t even mention the comet and I didn’t give you a recent scouting report on Comet 45P.

When the press pulls that sort of build-up routine, it creates a sort of “Boy Who Cried Wolf” syndrome. Nature lovers won’t go out to see the next comet that hits the press because they had been let down so badly before.

That’s why you should get you nature and science news from a trusted source like All WNY News. And, that’s why you should get your butt outside this month….a comet that actually will be visible to backyard observers toting field glasses will make itself available to us on the Niagara Frontier.

Comet 2P/Encke is a regularly-observed celestial body, as it completes an orbit of the sun every 3.3 years. It was first recorded in 1786. Then, its orbit was calculated in 1819 by Johann Encke (hence the comet’s common name). Mister Encke was a German astronomer who has his name plastered across all sorts of things in the sky – not only this comet, but also an asteroid, a crater on the moon, and the gap in Saturn’s rings.

Comet Encke is a small ball of ice and stone, with a diameter just under 3 miles. But, that doesn’t mean it hasn’t had an impact on us here on Earth. The tail is a regular contributor to the Taurids meteor shower and it is believed that a huge chunk of the comet caused the infamous Tunguska Event of 1908 when a cometary body exploded 5 miles above Russian soil and flattened almost 800 square miles of forest. Fortunately, it was a wilderness area and there were no human causalities.

Some scholars also believe that the swastika, which is an ancient symbol that had its roots far before the Nazis, was inspired by a bright head-on appearance of Encke centuries ago when it was a larger, brighter and more active comet.

Comet Encke will be relatively easy to find with binoculars. Look to the western sky about an hour after the sun sets. It will be very close to and just to the right of Venus, the brightest planet in the sky, which will make it easy to locate. Encke will appear as a small, fuzzy, green/blue glow. The angle will be as such that the tail will not be visible with binoculars on this trip around the sun. The comet will be visible for the next two weeks before its glare is overcome by the sun’s glow by early-March.

So, grab your binoculars, get out there are enjoy this comet while you can. It’s always cool to see one of these nighttime wonders – especially one so rich in history, one that changed our world in a few ways.

From the 26 February 2017 All WNY News

Friday, February 10, 2017

Invest in Rural America’s internet infrastructure

One of the most frustrating things about being in a world so completely dominated by the Internet is having inconsistent and limited access to the ‘net which is undoubtedly the most powerful communication, information, and commercial tool ever invented by Man.

Living where I do, we don’t have cable and the over-the-air broadband made available to us is slow and its monthly usage is capped. Because of that, we have to dramatically limit our web browsing -- we cannot watch videos and we try to stay away from downloading documents and software.

While that has an effect on our personal web behaviors (I can’t watch my beloved college hockey team’s games online) and professional activities (my wife saves much of the management of her private practice for when she is at her office), it’s nothing compared to the frustration that must be had by our neighbors.

Within one mile of our home are a grain farmer, a fruit grower who maintains a retail and commercial cold storage facility, and one of the largest dairy farms in the county. Those folks are saddled with the same internet limitations that we have at home.

Operating a plant in a city and knowing how critical high-speed internet has been to how we do things, I can’t fathom how difficult it must be for them to handle the business side of their operations in this day and age of e-commerce an e-control.

How do they market their products? How do they handle transactions with their clients? How do they communicate and share files with suppliers, distributors, banks, and accountants? How do they not get frustrated in the inability to invest in web-based technologies like cameras and other monitoring systems that would serve their farms well?  

Some would say that it comes with the territory of living and doing business in Rural America, that it’s a trade-off. But is it?

Rural America is not backwoods. We don’t live some Spartan, bare-bones existence. At least where we are we have some of the finest in infrastructure…our roads are in tip-top shape, our electrical grid is exceptional, and we have county water serving our properties.

But, that infrastructure market basket is missing something just as critical – the internet, be it in the form of cable, fiber optics, or cellular technologies.

In this era and all those coming after us, having the Internet is just as necessary as having good roads, bridges, and waterways. Just as trade has, is and will be moved across those pieces of infrastructure, trade now moves across -- and always will -- the Internet. It’s an absolutely critical means by which businesses can compete globally.

Because the free market has been so slow to invest in rural Internet access, it will likely take some sort of investment from federal and state governments to provide that access to rural residents and businesses, just as those governments did and do with the other pieces of infrastructure.

What form could that take? It could be tax incentives. It could be elimination -- or even addition -- of regulations. It could be direct investment in and the ownership of the rural systems, something akin to the public power systems that some municipalities have. 

President Trump campaigned at length about the need to invest in America’s infrastructure and it will obviously become a part of his legacy. But, his team, at that time, did not consider rural Internet access as a part of the investment package. That mindset has to change, especially given his vague promises to provide better broadband to the Rural Americans who voted him in.    

This is not a problem unique to my neighborhood; it’s bigger than us. Gasport is just one community of thousands facing such struggles. In New York alone, more than 100,000 people don’t have access to wired internet providers, while two-thirds of a million people in the Empire State have access to just one provider. If you look at America as a whole, only 55 percent of rural residents can achieve a connection of 25 megabits per second (the FCC’s minimum broadband threshold that was announced in 2015), while 94 percent of urban residents can connect at that rate.

With a chasm that vast it will be difficult to close that gap, but somehow we have to, and with a sense of urgency, too. Rural America’s poverty rate of 18 percent is 3 percent higher than Metropolitan America’s rate and it’s growing. By investing in the latest and greatest communications networks, those areas can be given the chance to turn around their fortunes by starting or growing businesses in a world where e-commerce is king.  

From the 13 February 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Friday, February 3, 2017

NYPA helps Confer Plastics’ competitive position

Longtime readers of this column know that I constantly rail against the high cost of electricity in New York.

In ours homes, we pay $60 more per month for electricity than the average American. At local factories and machine shops, we pay almost twice what our out-of-state competitors pay.

That second factor is especially bothersome to our economy, as it robs it of opportunity and jobs.

I know firsthand of that impact, because we’re talking about an annual power bill in the $1 million territory at Confer Plastics. The overpayment poses a serious competitive disadvantage and it has limited our ability to acquire and retain business. Over our nearly half century, we’ve lost out on some decent, high volume jobs for pennies on the dollar, pennies attributed to what is our third-highest cost at the plant, and one we really can’t control.

That has changed our business model over the years. Our New York roots and our love for our coworkers who helped make the company are strong. So how could we overcome New York’s higher costs, not only for electricity but for a wide variety of factors, and keep them and others employed? We adapted and  rounded-out our capabilities by investing in larger machines, which gives us the ability to make things that very few can.

We hit a home run in that department last year, with a private investment (that is, no corporate welfare grants utilized or pursued) of $3.25 million in what is one of the largest blow molding machines in the whole world. It’s on the short list in that category, maybe in the Top Five, definitely in the Top Ten, when you look at a combination of shot size (it can drop 150 pounds of material) and press height (it can make parts 15 feet in length). That has allowed us to ramp up production in a variety of categories of consumer goods and we’ve added dozens of jobs since the machine went into use.

Last week, Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and New York Power Authority Gil Quiniones toured the plant to see the machine affectionately known as “the Beast” and meet our team while announcing the availability of 400 kilowatts of ReCharge NY power to help us mitigate the cost of running the machine.

That electricity couldn’t come at a better time.

While we are trying to dominate the large-part niche and are one of only a few to do so, we’re not alone. The same year we expanded our plant, our single-greatest threat in the industry started building a plant east of the Mississippi. They always operated on the West Coast but needed an East Coast facility so they are closer to their and our existing and potential customers, which takes away the very best competitive advantage we had versus that competitor (shipping big things is not cheap).

2016 going into 2017 became a battleground. We grow. They grow.

In order to beat that new, powerful threat and keep Western New Yorkers working, that new machine of ours needed some semblance of cost certainty and lower costs at that. NYPA obliged with the cheap power.

NYPA’s faith in our job-creating abilities is much appreciated as was their ability to work with me and make this a go. After all, I’ve been someone who has consistently put New York government in the crosshairs over the dozen years of this column. They didn’t see me as a threat or a bother in this endeavor; instead, they saw me as a partner in furthering the goals of NYPA and the Niagara Power Project to use hydropower to make the economy grow and keep hard-working folks gainfully employed here on the Niagara Frontier. Their allocation of power gives us a chance to succeed now and well into the future.

In just a few years, we will have our fifty-year open house for the general public and I will encourage you to see our awesome machines and awesome people and get a feel for how a public-private partnership like this can help small companies like ours survive in a dog-eat-dog business world.    

From the 06 February 2016 Greater Niagara Newspapers