By Dan Hust
LIBERTY Sullivan County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) is pinning its leadership hopes on the executive director of its Ulster County counterpart: Lydia “Lee” Reidy.
“We’ve been talking about it for over a year,” Sullivan CCE Board President Marc Jaffe confirmed. “... Among [CCE] executive directors, Lee is respected as one of the best.”
Indeed, Reidy has spent nearly 40 years in the Extension’s employ, the last 22 as head of Ulster County’s office.
After three failed attempts to replace retired Director Joe Walsh, Sullivan’s board is eager to have a stable presence in charge of an office serving citizens, farmers, caregivers and gardeners across 1,000 square miles.
They believe they’ve found that in Reidy, who for the next six months will serve as interim executive director.
“She’s kind of getting our house back in order,” said Jaffe. “For the past several years, our leadership has been challenged.”
“They’ve been partially leaderless for a while, and that’s caused some problems,” agreed Reidy.
The office’s 2010 report, in fact, calls last year a “rollercoaster.”
But what some might see as difficult obstacles Reidy views as exciting challenges.
“I’m there because there’s a bunch of potential there,” she said.
Having worked with Sullivan’s 18-strong staff and hundreds of volunteers in collaborative efforts ever since the days of Gerry Skoda, she’s particularly impressed with both the personnel and the Liberty office.
“They have a phenomenal facility there that’s the envy of Cornell Cooperative Extensions across the state,” Reidy said. “... I thought that was a good base to start from.”
She’s also excited to be back in Liberty, where she has many happy memories of summering as a child and adult with her family.
“You have a soft spot for places you’ve called home,” she acknowledged. “... It’s a gorgeous county!”
But it’s the future, not the past, on which Reidy is focused.
Though she’s dedicating about three days a week at the Sullivan office, she’s not giving up her leadership role at Ulster County CCE, so she’s also bringing in staff from there to help share her workload.
“During the next six months, we’ll be evaluating staff, programming and board functions, and making recommendations ... to increase efficiencies,” she explained.
Reidy said she’s not been directed to cut staff or programs, but she is exploring regional partnerships, particularly in finance, human resources and information technologies.
She’s also helping prepare the next budget, which is due in mid-August.
Reidy’s interested in ensuring an Extension office that is “really flexible and nimble” and has “feet on the ground and ears to the community.”
That said, she also plans to listen to the staff and board.
“I told them this would be a team approach,” she affirmed. “... I’m not looking to clone Sullivan into what Ulster is. There are different needs in Sullivan County.”
Jaffe appreciates that cooperative spirit, but he’s also eager to see what changes Reidy and crew will recommend.
“What she has done in Ulster County are things we want to do here,” he said.
“First and foremost, she’s made a commitment to the agricultural community,” Jaffe explained.
She’s also helped coalesce programming and created a team atmosphere.
“And she’s really gone after grant funding,” he added, disclosing that the Sullivan Extension office is realistic about dwindling government funding.
“We have been anticipating the need to self-fund for a while,” Jaffe affirmed, “and Lee’s already turned that corner in Ulster.”
He agreed with Reidy that Sullivan cannot simply mimic Ulster, but it must adapt to survive.
“Cornell is changing,” he observed. “They’re trying to recognize some synergies among organizations.”
Sullivan already is saving some money via the agreement with Reidy. Instead of the $65,000 a year they were advertising for a permanent executive director, Sullivan is paying Reidy and her team $5,000 a month, with no benefits.
“It fits within our budget,” Jaffe said. “It’s not going to stretch us this year.”
When that contract expires at the end of December, Sullivan and Reidy’s boss, Ulster County CCE’s board, have the option to renegotiate for another six months.
Reidy’s not sure what will happen then. Her board was concerned that the Ulster County office might suffer in her absence, and both CCE boards (who each unanimously approved the contract) want to see how she performs.
She promised to be available to both, and to the staffs she oversees.
“You can find me,” she vowed. “I plan to be accessible.”
Her presence, too, will help Sullivan’s board precisely define what they want in a permanent director.
“When we do a search for an executive director, we’ll know what we’re talking about,” Jaffe predicted, estimating the search will begin anew in September.
Reidy, who plans to stick with Ulster County’s CCE, will not be a candidate in Sullivan’s search.
In the meantime, Jaffe is one very relieved board president.
“I continue to be flattered and thrilled that Lee and her staff were willing to take this on, because it is a hard job,” he remarked.
“... The whole mood of the place feels different.”