Behind Byrne's run for Assembly in 116th, a trail of struggling businesses
Over the last month, the race to represent the 116th Assembly District has gone from heated to scorching. In the so-called River District in Jefferson and St. Lawrence Counties, mailboxes are overflowing with political ads from Republican John Byrne and the Democratic incumbent, Addie Russell.
One of the big issues? Russell has accused Byrne of inflating his credentials as a business owner in New York state.
Byrne doubled down during a recent debate moderated by WWNY-TV's Jeff Cole.
"I have my plastics manufacturing company as well as my campground," Byrne said. "And my campground? We rehabbed it and it’s growing every year." Byrne later interrupted Cole to invite "anyone to come out and see it."
But when North Country Public Radio investigated these businesses, they did not find a clear record of success. In the first of two stories about the 116th Assembly race, we look at the apparent failures — and empty land — that Byrne has stacked up during his years as an entrepreneur in upstate New York.
"It's hard here in New York"
We first asked John Byrne about his businesses last August, when he was still fighting his way through the Republican primary.
"I’m actually the guy that’s written paychecks and had employees working for me," Byrne said. "And it’s hard here in New York." Byrne said he opened a factory called JLB Plastics nearly 20 years earlier in Otsego County, where his family had roots. (Byrne's full name is John Leo Byrne III; the business is named for those initials.)
At its peak, Byrne said he had 30 employees at his injection molding facility, making products such as the plastic sticks for those little American flags you see kids waving at parades.
Byrne insists this factory is still going strong, but there’s a problem. There’s no record of an active corporation called JLB Plastics. Records from the New York Dept. of State show Byrne dissolved the company six years ago. A spokesperson for Byrne's campaign, Nick Wilock, told NCPR that’s only true on paper. The factory isn’t as active as it used to be, Wilock said, but it still exists.
Looking for answers in Otsego County
We contacted about a half-dozen public officials in Morris and Otsego County. County building inspector Bob Mahoney was able to locate Byrne's property records. Mahoney said the lot is classified as vacant land with improvements — no mention of manufacturing.
"I’ve never heard of a plastics factory out that way," Mahoney said, adding that he's lived in Otsego County for about 40 years.
James Powers is a dairy farmer who's in the middle of his ninth term in the Otsego County legislature. His district includes JLB Plastics, meaning it's Powers' job to represent the factory's interests.
"I am not familiar with this facility," Powers said. We did reach one municipal employee who said he'd heard of the factory before, but he declined to speak on the record.
Here’s what we do know: A trade publication called Plastics News published a couple of paragraphs about the opening of JLB Plastics in Morris back in 1999. “JLB Plastics currently employs six, but plans to hire five more within the year," the piece reads. An editor at Plastics News said he couldn't confirm whether the story was an original piece of reporting or a press release.
"The only person here"
Gerard Joy is confident the factory existed — because he used to work there.
Joy said he was the bookkeeper for JLB Plastics from about 1998 to 2000. The business started strong, but the finances were shaky. According to Joy, JLB Plastics wasn’t a stable employer.
"There are people that gave up more than they were capable of giving up to try and be a part of his world," Joy said. "And I don’t think that what went on was really acceptable to anybody."
Joy had a separate business deal with Byrne that ended badly, and he left town for a couple of years. Now, Joy works for a different factory in Morris. He said he still drives by JLB Plastics from time and time. "It looks abandoned," Joy said.
WRVO reporter Payne Horning went to Morris in late October to see for himself. Here's how he described the factory:
"So I’m looking at this steel-looking building. The grass is now growing into what I think was once the parking lot. There are weeds and bushes and all kinds of vegetation growing around the facility and inching closer to the building itself... which is eerily quiet, as I am the only person here? [laughs]"
Tax records show this plot of land in Otsego County is worth about $49,000, including improvements. It's important to remember that John Byrne has made this business a big part of his campaign. His only political experience is a couple years on Cape Vincent's town council and a development board.
A slowdown — not a closure
We asked Byrne what’s going on with JLB Plastics today, and he said it’s been rough going. Byrne hasn’t had a big order since 2014. He said he’s got a bunch of product piled up in a warehouse.
"I can have a part-time guy go up there and all he's got to do is take the products, throw 'em on the pallet, put the pallet on the truck, and the truck takes it away," Byrne said. "All done."
The goal was something much bigger — and Byrne said that is the reason why he’s running for office. He said it shouldn’t be so hard to keep a business going in New York state.
"It’s a terrible feeling. It’s a terrible feeling to lay anybody off, and New York state makes it so difficult to do business here," Byrne said. "New York state is the toughest state to do business in the whole nation. The whole nation! And I’m not the only one that has to do this. You saw GM up in Massena, Michelex up in Massena, Alcoa."
As an assemblyman, Byrne said he would push for tax cuts of up to 30 percent to try and stimulate growth.
These days, Byrne is running a new business. He bought an RV park near Lake Ontario about a decade ago, and calls it Ontario Shores Campground.
"I figured it would keep me busy and it certainly has," Byrne said as he walked across the grounds in late October. "When it’s in the peak, the summer, there’s a lot of kids running around, which my daughter loves. She’s eight years old. There’s transient units on this side…"
Byrne wouldn’t say what his RV park or his factory are worth. Tax records put the full market value around $425,000 — but it's not a perfect measurement.
At the end of the day, Byrne said he’s proud of his business record.
"I can stand before you and tell you I did the American dream," Byrne said. "I went into debt to start that business. I took the risk. I built that business up."
If he's elected to the Assembly, Byrne said he’ll do everything he can to encourage small business owners and make sure the North Country’s economy doesn’t suffer any more than it already has.
WRVO's Julia Botero and Payne Horning contributed to this story.