By CRAIG FREILICH
St. Lawrence County economic development leaders say they are upbeat about the local economic picture for 2012.
The director of the county Chamber of Commerce, the co-chair of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council (NCREDC), and the new CEO of the county Industrial Development Agency all see 2012 as a year the county and its residents can move the economy forward.
Following the approval of NCREDC’s plan late last year – and an additional $40 million in state funding to the North Country for a total of $103 million -- county Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Pat McKeown is optimistic as she looks ahead.
“The chamber is absolutely thrilled at what transpired in 2011 and we’re looking forward to things only getting better in 2012,” McKeown said.
She said the chamber and the community at large have helped boost the county’s sales tax revenues. “Are more people buying cars? Are more people coming here because of fishing? Whatever the reason, the county is looking good, and if the county looks good, I’m happy.”
“I’m truly optimistic about the next 12 months,” said Clarkson University Pres. Anthony Collins, also NCREDC co-chair. “Finally after five years of a down economy, there are positive signs” for potential growth.
Collins said the political climate in the state has improved with the work of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“With Gov. Cuomo, we have been lucky to find the right governor at the right time. And both sides seem to agree that it’s time to put New York first instead of politics first.”
New county Industrial Development Agency Chief Executive Officer Patrick Kelly, who recently replaced now-retired Raymond Fountain, said a number of programs are already underway that are aimed at improving the county’s economy and employment prospect. He said he is pleased to see the NCREDC proposals approved by the state. Those things, he said, will help in his development agency’s goal of helping to create and retain jobs in the county.
“We would like to see us become more aggressive and focused on being in front of companies in the county and beyond, working to put projects together that lead to improving the economic condition of the county,” Kelly said. “We need to build a more robust pipeline of projects for businesses that are already here and those we’d like to attract.”
The biggest boost to the morale of the North Country’s business and development communities, if not an instant boost to the economy, was the praise of state economic developers for NCREDC’s plan for projects and programs to move economic growth ahead. The NCREDC plan was approved in December for millions in extra development grants to the seven counties of the council, Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence.
Co-chair Collins says the council is preparing for the second round of grant awards that Cuomo has promised for this year.
“First, we’re going through all of the projects from the first round to make sure we get on track for the funding,” he said. “Everyone sees these amounts and wonders when the funding will actually happen.”
In the first round and in the second, Collins says the governor is “looking to people who can react and respond quickly,” and the North Country council, with the lines of communication among members already open and exercised, and ideas already in the air, will be prepared.
“Albany was impressed with the teamwork in the North Country,” Collins said, “and the team remains intact.”
County IDA CEO Kelly said “that regional process, brining together stakeholders from seven counties, was a good exercise, and the fact that it was well received in Albany is an added benefit” as the second round begins.
One challenge for his agency is “to work with local companies, local employers, to do more projects investing in the tax base,” which would go along way to aiding his main task of creating and retaining jobs in the county.
Kelly says the specific aims of the agency will be in “our role of finding new industries, finding ways to assist existing industries, using our services to their benefit, and to promote our message to businesses not in the county now.”
He said infrastructure investments, such as the “broadband investment that is underway, the improvement of the Gouverneur water system to keep Kinney’s competitive, and the Newton Falls rail project, are the kinds of investments we want to see proposed and completed.
Chamber Director McKeown is buoyed by signs that past successes by the chamber may be eclipsed this year as they continue to promote the county as a tourist destination and a site for business opportunity.
She says the fall craft show grows each year, as has The Really Big Show in the spring at Clarkson’s Cheel Center. The 10th annual Junior Carp Tournament in August has brought international attention to fishing in the county, and the chamber is now assisting with the St. Lawrence River Walleye Association’s Northern Pike Ice Fishing Derby as they try to capitalize on the angling momentum and the county’s FISHCAP initiative.
“The Chamber’s work and FISHCAP’s work are now inextricably linked,” McKeown said.
McKeown also noted the new Hometown Heroes Fishing Tournament to be held in Brasher Falls this summer, a way to try to compensate some soldiers at Fort Drum with a tournament just for them.
Down the road, she says, the chamber is considering a dog show.
Meanwhile the chamber is strengthening its partnership with Clarkson’s Reh Center for Entrepreneurship, which provided information for business people for free, and with the school’s Small Business 101 courses for local entrepreneurs.
“Our members have asked for help in starting, financing, fixing and marketing their businesses, and these programs are of mutual benefit of students and business,” so the school and the chamber are partnering for a new series of free classes which begin next month on topics such as thinking strategically and managing marketing and finances.
McKeown also said she believes the county government has agreed to hire a new “trails coordinator” to manage multiple use trails in the county, such as those for people on horseback, skis and snowshoes, ATVs and snowmobiles.
“We need to pull it all together and market it outside our area. We want those travelers,” she said.