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Inside look at the future of New York Air Brake in Watertown

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CNY/NNY/S. Tier: Inside look at the future of New York Air Brake in Watertown
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New York Air Brake has been a part of the Watertown community for 150 years. It's been a part of the good times and the not so good times. To be a part of the next 150 years, the company's president told our Brian Dwyer it needs to do better both in the plant and outside of it and getting some help, both locally and from the state wouldn't hurt either.

WATERTOWN, N.Y -- "If you go back in time, historically we used to have a manufacturing force of over 4,000 people. Through a level of specializations, some of those businesses started to be divested and they went to different areas of the country," New York Air Brake President Michael Hawthorne said.

New York Air Brake is now only about ten percent of that. Future growth can happen, but it won't be easy. Hawthorne says shareholder investments have to pay off.

"I would tell you honestly, our enterprise at a corporate level is global," he added. "The shareholder always looks at where opportunities are to try and improve. We are continually challenged to find out if Watertown is the right place to do business."

The next investment is coming and Hawthorne says the product is a prime example of the sophisticated complex ideas and products that can be a game changer.

"We have an opportunity to put an oil-free compressor, a very large compressor," he said. "It's the biggest most people would have ever seen that would go into a freight locomotive."

But for it to all work, there's a series of things that Hawthorne says has to happen. He needs help from the state government.

"I don't know how to ask for tax relief. I don't know how to ask for some of the infrastructure improvements to help make this a more attractive place to do business."

Also from local governments.

"Watertown itself is not exactly the first in a list of where kids coming out of college want to go. This is a great community. We need to tout that more."

Then it's got to come from his own desk. He has to sell his company to those kids. He hosted an open house last week for hundreds of hopeful young students.

"If we're successful in allowing the capability of the business to come out, I think it in itself will help us to sell the technical people we want to have in our staff," Hawthorne said.

The Air Brake also needs to be a better neighbor.

"We're very sensitive to the fact. In order for us to be successful long term, we need to be a good citizen inside of this community."

Part of that is talking about pollution. The Air Brake's former owners, General Signal dumping chemicals neighbors say have caused numerous, severe health problems. Knorr-Bremse, the current owner, has said it will cooperate in any way, and has made huge investments in its environmental safety since taking ownership. But lawsuits are likely on the way and could name Knorr.

"If you look back at the way the business was structured, we have indemnity for our business from General Signal and SPX., their new parent company. They stand behind any of the issues as they may exist. I do want to make everyone fully aware, we are a fully responsible company," Hawthorne said.

Despite all the concerns, Hawthorne says in no time at all Watertown can be home to a $500 million a year business, if everyone wants it.

"To stay here long term," he said. "To ensure we have as many jobs as we can afford. We have to find success. We have to find the path forward that allows us to continue these investments."

And just announced Tuesday, New York Air Brake will close its plant in Kingston, Ontario just north of Watertown, across the border.

The operations will move to Watertown and could bring with it 50 jobs.

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