Although Rigas was born in Wellsville, N.Y., he is best known for creating Adelphia in Coudersport, a hillside town of about 2,500 not far from the New York border. It's one of many stops along U.S. Route 6 — the second-longest East-West road in the entire country — only a day trip away from Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Philadelphia and New York City. Rigas moved to Coudersport in the early 1950s, after he’d bought a movie theater on Main Street that still, to this day, shows a flick every night at 7:30 p.m. As a young man in his 20s, Rigas then began to pursue a new business venture: cable television. It would lead to the rise of Adelphia Communications Corporation.
The story of John Rigas and Adelphia will always sound improbable, no matter how many times you hear it. The company began as a small mom-and-pop operation, hidden away in the rolling Pennsylvania hills, before growing into the fifth-largest cable company in the United States. By 1997, Rigas had purchased the Buffalo Sabres. Seemingly overnight, Coudersport was now home to a Fortune 500 company and the owner of an NHL franchise. The word “Adelphia” was a household term nationwide, plastered across 30 states and even serving as the namesake for the Tennessee Titans’ football stadium in Nashville starting in 1999.
There was little precedent for this type of situation. Towns as small as Coudersport rarely, if ever, had served as headquarters for companies as big as Adelphia, which had more than five million cable subscribers at one point. Nor did towns as small as Coudersport usually have residents with the wealth and influence of the Rigas family. By the turn of the century, Coudersport was booming, with 2,000 Adelphia employees anchoring the Potter County economy and injecting life into local businesses and storefronts.
It all came crashing down starting in 2002, when the Securities and Exchange Commission accused Rigas of orchestrating “one of the most extensive financial frauds to ever take place at a public company.”
According to federal prosecutors, members of the Rigas family hid billions of dollars in company debt and raided Adelphia’s funds for their own personal benefit and business interests. Adelphia was their “personal piggy bank,” prosecutors said, helping to fund their golf course and international trips on a corporate jet, among other luxuries.
The leading U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, a fresh 42-year-old named James Comey, said members of the Rigas family “exploited Adelphia’s byzantine corporate and financial structure.”
Comey said their scheme was intended “to create a towering façade of false success, even as Adelphia was collapsing under the weight of its staggering debt burden and the defendants’ failing mismanagement of the company, while the Rigas family lined their pockets with shareholder dollars.”
Although they adamantly proclaimed their innocence and pointed out that auditors had signed off on all their Adelphia activities, Rigas and his son, Tim, were ultimately convicted. Adelphia went bankrupt. Eventually, the Buffalo Sabres filed for bankruptcy protection, too. And John Rigas was never able to make good on his promise to bring 1,500 jobs to downtown Buffalo with a new Adelphia headquarters.
Potter County and Coudersport, meanwhile, lost their largest and most important taxpayer when Adelphia went under. Still, despite the devastating economic consequences, many in this community still consider John Rigas a hero, an integral part of their north-central Pennsylvania family. To them, he is a good man who brought pride to their community.
Some say he was scapegoated by an overly aggressive federal government. Almost everybody in town has a story of Rigas’ personal generosity, and many continue to praise his character upon his return home from prison. The criminal case, the convictions, the collapse of Adelphia, the scathing assessments by federal prosecutors, the near-catastrophe for the Buffalo Sabres, none of that seems to overshadow the man they know John Rigas to be, regardless of the outside perception.
But there was a time, in the mid-2000s, when nobody really knew what would happen to this place. Buffalo could, and has, survived the fall of Adelphia. But Coudersport? Losing 2,000 jobs — equivalent to nearly the entire population of the town — just seemed almost too devastating to recover from.
Fifteen years after Rigas was led out into the streets of Manhattan in handcuffs, the lingering effects of Adelphia’s crash are undoubtedly a part of the fabric in Coudersport. But it is not the whole fabric. This community wants the world to know that it is not forever tied to Adelphia.
This town, after all, predates Adelphia by more than a century. It was first incorporated in 1848. In Coudersport, they commend John Rigas for his contributions and defend him as one of their own. That’s why they threw him a celebration. But Adelphia is not the sole purpose for their existence.
After enduring years of hardship, Coudersport is now experiencing a reinvention of sorts, moving forward – not backward – at a pace few could have predicted.
John Rigas has lived to see a town reborn. He will turn 93 years old next week.