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Put ‘heads together’ for biz growth

By Dan Hust
BETHEL — September 17, 2010 — The Sullivan County Economic Development Corporation (EDC), vowed two years ago to be resurrected by Legislature Chairman Jonathan Rouis, had its first official board meeting this week.
Representatives of the county, its Workforce Development Board and Industrial Development Agency, plus the Sullivan County Visitors Association, Chamber of Commerce and Partnership for Economic Development gathered for lunch at the new Dancing Cat Saloon in Bethel on Tuesday.
“This is something I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time,” Rouis remarked. “It’s an important day for the county, for economic development and for the business community.”
Utilizing a 35-year-old set of bylaws created for a never-launched EDC, the mission of this new version is the same: to reduce unemployment, to promote and enhance employment, to research ways to help in-county municipalities, to attract and retain industry, and “lessening the burdens of government and acting in the public interest.”
Rouis said the goal is for the EDC to become “a seamless economic development group for the county as a whole.”
Ongoing efforts – like the creation of a slaughterhouse and creamery, the redevelopment of the Apollo Plaza and downtown Monticello, and a host of initiatives by the involved agencies – will be under the EDC’s purview, though the agencies themselves will retain any existing autonomy.
“This is really a team effort,” noted County Planning Commissioner Luiz Aragon, whom the bylaws require to be president of the EDC. “Truth is, none of this could really happen without all of us working together.”
Months ago, it seemed that cooperation might prove elusive, with the Chamber in particular uncertain of the efficacy of an umbrella economic development agency.
But on Tuesday, the focus seemed to be on living up to the county’s recently-adopted slogan, “Mountains of Opportunities.”
That included unusually straightforward assessments of weaknesses.
“We’ve been trying the same things over and over for the last 20 years,” observed Robert Green, owner of the dealership of the same name in Monticello and chairman of the Workforce Development Board. “... We need to come up with a new idea ... and it has to be something that will employ a lot of people – people who live in Sullivan County.”
Rouis pointed out the need for a “rapid response” to outside industry info requests.
“You have to make 28 phone calls to 28 people to really get information that should have been accessible by anyone at this table,” he lamented of the current situation.
County Manager David Fanslau added that existing businesses in the county need to be a focal point, as well.
“We have to make sure we don’t lose as we’re trying to gain,” he said.
He also pushed for a major effort on job creation where the public sector no longer is the county’s leading employer.
Green agreed, noting that the area’s low wages could be a “carrot” to firms looking to be more competitive in the marketplace.
However, Chamber Board Chair Jeremy Gorelick pointed out that his own attempts to woo “back office” companies to Sullivan County proved unsuccessful because “their middle managers and high-end people didn’t want to live here.”
Still, he admitted, that was four years ago, and the county has changed.
“I just don’t know if it’s changed enough,” he wondered.
“I think one of the biggest obstacles,” said Chamber President Terri Ward, “is that people don’t want development here. It’s really difficult to get anything here without an absolute, outright fight.”
Partnership President Tim McCausland agreed, using the Yukiguni mushroom factory as an example. Though now approved by the Town of Mamakating, the factory has been scaled back – and with it, the jobs, McCausland rued.
Workforce Development Director Laura Quigley warned attendees that even if jobs become more plentiful, low wages will ensure even full-timers will have to apply for government assistance.
Green said he’s willing to accept that in the short term so as to slowly but surely push the local economy into less unemployment and increased wages.
“One of the large industry clusters we have to figure out how to reach is agriculture,” Rouis told those gathered. “... Too often we end up trying to do things we think will work that don’t work.”
A debate ensued as to how best to accomplish that task, with some advocating for getting the EDC’s legs under it first and others urging the ag. industry be brought in to the mix right away.
Ultimately, it was pointed out that soon the board will feature a representative of that industry.
Also, a consensus was reached to bring in local employers to advise the EDC and to mount educational campaigns with local governments and the public to make them aware of services and incentives.
A web portal is also in the works, said Aragon.
Board being created
During Tuesday’s inaugural meeting, the group settled various items, like two-year terms for at-large members and the creation of an Initiatives Committee.
Members agreed to wait until the next meeting to name a chairperson and vice chairperson (neither of whom can be from county government directly).
The board itself is still being constituted, as three of its 16 members are yet to be named. Two will represent the agricultural and healthcare industries, with the third coming from whatever background the board desires. All three will be the only at-large members.
Each of the involved non-county agencies will have their presidents/directors and board chairpeople on the EDC board. Rounding out the 16 members are Rouis, Fanslau and Legislature Minority Leader Leni Binder.
All board service will be volunteer, and each member is entitled to one vote. Rouis said he does not expect the non-profit EDC to disburse any kind of funding.
Board meetings are open to the public. The next meeting is scheduled for October 19 at noon, though a location is not yet set. Watch the Democrat’s meetings section (on page 2A of every issue) for the exact location.

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