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Community leaders await word on psychiatric center’s fate

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No news could be good news.

That was the feeling from some community leaders Tuesday in the absence of an announcement from the state Office of Mental Health about the fate of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

The lack of news could mean state officials took to heart what community members said in support of the center during last week’s OMH listening tour session, said Robert O. McNeil, Lisbon, chairman of the St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “There was a lot of good testimony there.”

Acting OMH Commissioner Kristin M. Woodlock said during the session that she expected to finalize a plan on the future of mental health services in the state by Monday.

That plan will include a downsizing of inpatient beds, an expansion of outpatient services and the establishment of regional centers of excellence that will partner with hospitals, universities and community agencies for research and care. The plan has prompted fears from community leaders and mental health advocates that the psychiatric center could close, putting 520 people out of work and forcing patients to travel long distances for care.

Ogdensburg City Manager John M. Pinkerton said he also remains optimistic, and he did not expect to hear anything this soon.

“I think there will be an announcement made by the governor when it’s appropriate and when it’s at his best advantage to do that,” Mr. Pinkerton said. “I think people are antsy, and I understand that, but the next step is in the governor’s hands, and then we will have to determine what we do next.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s office did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment on whether OMH had delivered its plan for his review.

Optimism might remain, but economic development officials are well aware of the worst case scenario. Losing 520 jobs will have a devastating effect on the Ogdensburg economy and beyond, said Wade A. Davis, Ogdensburg Bridge and Port Authority executive director.

“The number of jobs at the psych center is equal to the number of jobs currently in the industrial park,” he said. “It would be very difficult to find a replacement for those jobs.”

He said until this year, the industrial park was still recovering from the downsizing and eventual closure of Breconridge that started in 2006. The company at one time employed more than 100 people and had 82 on its payroll when it shuttered in 2010.

“We are only now back at pre-closure levels, and that was recovering five, 10, 20 jobs at a time,” Mr. Davis said. “This is of a much larger scale.”

The ripple effect from the loss of jobs would touch the entire north country, St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency CEO Patrick J. Kelly said. He said adding more than 500 jobs on top of employment losses in recent years at General Motors, Newton Falls Fine Paper and other firms would only make a bad situation worse.

“If people can’t afford to feed their families, they can’t stay,” he said. “The effect just keeps compounding. Replacing those high-caliber operations and those high-caliber employees is so difficult anywhere. But I believe it’s harder here than it is in other areas where there is more economic activity and more opportunities to find other work.”

Mr. Pinkerton said while he hopes for the best, he has faith the north country will find a way to survive if the worst happens.

“When we lost Diamond National, it was a big blow to this community. People didn’t think we’d ever survive it. When Augsbury went out, we didn’t think we’d survive that,” he said. “We’re a hardscrabble people. Resiliency is part of who we are. I don’t want to go there yet because I don’t believe it’s going to close. If it does, we have to have contingency plans and work all the harder.”

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