DUNKIRK — A house is just a house, but a home is something worth so much more. To one Dunkirk resident, that sentiment has her clinging to the place she has called home for more than two decades.
Josephine Tooley, a 70-year-old lifelong resident of Chautauqua County, owns a home neighboring the Wells Enterprises ice cream manufacturing facility on Main Street in Dunkirk. Despite a planned reconstruction of the Wells facility, including plans to demolish three nearby residences, Tooley has repeatedly refused to sell her home.
“I told them from day one, I can’t move. I’m not moving, but they still kept coming at me,” Tooley said of representatives acting on behalf of Wells Enterprises.
At a recent presentation of the reconstruction plans of the Wells facility, a 202,000-square-foot facility was depicted, including parking, truck bays, and green space. Brad Galles, a senior vice president at Wells, stated the output of ice cream products would be more than double the plant’s current production.
Along with the reconstruction of the modernized facility in Dunkirk would come the creation of more than 200 new jobs. The plans received positive reviews from members of the community, from Planning Board members at the presentation to county residents celebrating the plans on social media.
But there was one big problem with the company’s plans — they didn’t yet have all the associated properties secured, and it appears that won’t change anytime soon.
“They jumped the gun,” Tooley said.
In the recent presentation, Wells executives stated a desire to construct part of the new plant close to Newton Street — which would necessitate the purchase and demolition of three nearby houses. Negotiations for the three properties were underway at the time of the presentation, and terms of a sale for two of the three residences were agreed upon. Tooley, however, refused to do the same.
“When this started last month, they called all us neighbors in to meet with them. They told us they want to buy these properties,” Tooley said. “I told them right out, I can’t do that. I said I’m 70 years old … I can’t afford to do that, I can’t physically do that.”
Tooley claimed she was given a deadline to give an answer on whether or not she would sell. She still refused to sign.
“They keep throwing papers at me. … They were scaring the hell out of me,” Tooley said, attributing stomach aches, chest pains, and weight loss to the stress of the ordeal. “… All this stuff really scares me.”
Tooley lives alone in her home, as her lone son and his wife and children reside in North Carolina. Tooley claimed she previously rented a home on Central Avenue in Dunkirk for 28 years, from seven different landlords, before purchasing her home on Main Street.
“It’s a miracle I even got this house,” Tooley said. She has lived in her current residence for the past 21 years.
Tooley stated she was unable to discuss what has been offered to her in exchange for the property because of a confidentiality agreement entered into with the company.
“Money isn’t the most important thing in the world. I’m doing fine,” Tooley said. “… I told them, ‘If you want the property, wait until I croak, you can have it.’ “
Despite what she called “substantial” offers, what Tooley wants more than anything that has been offered is peace and quiet in the home she has lived in for more than two decades.
“I want to be left alone. I want this to end,” Tooley said. “… I want them to leave me alone.”
Adam Baumgartner, vice president of Wells Enterprises, told the OBSERVER, “We have no comment at this time due to open and ongoing discussions.”
Meanwhile, the city of Dunkirk has moved forward in its process to support the Wells project.
“The city isn’t waiting for anyone or anything as we push and promote the Wells Corporation’s proposed ice cream plant rebuild and expansion,” Dunkirk Mayor Wilfred Rosas said.
The city’s Planning Board approved the site plan on Aug. 25, then the Zoning Board of Appeals granted two area variances for the plan at a meeting on Tuesday, pertaining to the height of the new structure and setback requirements from Main Street and Newton Street. Both boards voted unanimously in support of the project.
“The quick action by our Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals is further evidence of this City’s commitment to Wells and its significant role in the future of our city and our residents,” Rosas said. “I think too that it speaks volumes to our other business partners – large and small – that the city of Dunkirk wants to partner with you and have your business and our city and residents succeed.”