Chamber resists joining EDC
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Sullivan County Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis’ dream of an overarching Economic Development Corporation (EDC) gained momentum Thursday.
Legislators unanimously approved the EDC’s formal creation, uniting the Partnership for Economic Development, the Center for Workforce Development, the Industrial Development Agency, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Visitors Association under one umbrella.
That, however, was the easy part.
Now comes the difficult task of encouraging these groups to work more closely with one another, perhaps move in to the same office space in Rock Hill and submit to a yet-to-be-constituted EDC board.
That board will be appointed solely by the Legislature and consist of county government officers, private-sector representatives, and one member of each participating group. It will be tasked with coordinating economic development policy and guiding such growth.
Each involved agency, however, already has its own board with varying levels of power and responsibilities. While Rouis has promised they will remain intact, how much freedom and power they will still have is a key question.
After all, the very idea of the EDC is predicated on the belief that these groups have too often worked independently.
That belief is flawed, according to Chamber Board Chair Sue Hamlin, who said the chamber has for years coordinated its calendar of activities with the other groups on a quarterly basis.
The chamber’s board has rejected the idea of the EDC, preferring to remain independent. They’ve even asked Rouis to stop including the chamber’s name in press releases.
“But he’s still going ahead and doing it,” Hamlin remarked in frustration. “We have not signed off on this. We never have.”
The idea of cooperation, she said, is not an issue it’s the extra layer of government in the form of the EDC board.
“It’s going to be politically appointed, and the chamber is not a political entity,” she explained.
Plus, the chamber sees no additional benefit to its current slate of business development and education programs.
“What’s in it for us?” she asked. “That hasn’t been explained to us.”
Earlier this month, the chamber board voted to not take the county’s $25,000 in annual funding part of a longtime strategic plan to become financially independent. Hamlin said it was not tied to the EDC issue.
Thanks to 617 fully-paid-up members and President Terri Hess’ leadership, Hamlin remarked that the chamber is meeting its financial obligations, and the board felt county government could use the savings.
But that move has left a question of whether or not the county can force the chamber to participate in the EDC. It’s the only one of the aforementioned groups not heavily tied in funding or purpose to county government.
For now, however, the mood with the rest of the agencies is optimistic.
“Working together, the participant organizations can leverage their independent expertise to create an economic development platform that positions Sullivan County for greater success in the future,” said Partnership Board Chair Suzanne Loughlin.
“The Sullivan County Visitors Association foresees successful coordinated efforts with all of the agencies as we unite to capture economic revitalization within all industry clusters while presenting an enhanced quality of life for the Sullivan County Catskills,” related Visitors Association President/ CEO Roberta Byron-Lockwood.
IDA CEO Allan Scott found Rouis’ branding campaign of particular interest. Such a unified logo and/or slogan would be available for use by both public and private organizations to market the county’s available land, business opportunities, jobs and attractions.
“This is an exciting time of development and growth in Sullivan County,” Scott related, “and having our agencies united under one brand and mission statement can only strengthen our ability to market Sullivan County as the place to do business in the Catskills.”
The EDC was announced by Rouis at the beginning of the year in his State of the County speech. Since then, its development has mostly been behind closed doors, though former Division of Community and Economic Development Commissioner Susan Jaffe was transferred in June to the Partnership, along with her staff and all responsibilities for the Empire Zone program.
However, Rouis expects the Legislature to publicly discuss the EDC board’s formation during committee meetings this fall, with the board itself meeting shortly thereafter.
“The passage of this resolution will allow the county manager’s office to move forward,” he noted. “... I believe the EDC is an important next step for Sullivan County because it will unite our economic development agencies and prepare the county to move ahead with acquiring and developing smart, sustainable economic development opportunities moving forward.”