Dan Hust | Democrat
William Fredricks of Wadley-Donovan speaks to public and private officials Wednesday about the county’s attempt to create a comprehensive economic development strategy.
Public, officials weigh in on economic development
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO April 5, 2013 Legislators and the public this week started prioritizing what economic development they want to see in Sullivan County.
The results of a public survey administered last week and a governmental meeting held Wednesday weren’t too different, though it became painfully obvious that the process to create a comprehensive, countywide economic development plan has not been as smooth or as coordinated as was hoped.
Public, officials generally agree
Bill Fredricks and Mark Waterhouse of Wadley-Donovan GrowthTech the consultant hired by the county through a Rural Business Opportunity Grant asked both the general public and a pre-selected group of local politicians and businesspeople to choose the most important initiatives from a list of 33 (the result of months of meetings and research with locals).
The online survey was initially intended for a pre-selected group of people, as well: those who had previously expressed interest at an economic development charrette.
But the survey’s website address was leaked, leading to more responses (135 in all).
Out of the 33 initiatives, survey respondents picked these top 14 (in no particular order):
1. Coordinate with the arts, culture, history and recreation sectors to include them in the county’s economic development programs and marketing message
2. Include downtown, village and hamlet economic sustainability
3. Create a marketing message
4. Continue to work to expand the local property tax base
5. Support high standards in public schools (K-12)
6. Consider expansion of SUNY Sullivan to a four-year institution
7. Seek to have improved broadband and cell service in rural areas
8. Develop a year-round farmers’ market and crafts center
9. Create local dairy processing infrastructure and facilities, as needed
10. Support the development and sustained operations of the Liberty red meat processing facility
11. Consider development of a food hub
12. Maintain tourism as a major economic focus
13. Link tourism to agriculture, culture/arts, and downtown-related economic development
14. Continue already-excellent efforts to improve the county’s downtowns and main streets.
Wednesday’s meeting at the Government Center in Monticello featured a range of representatives from county government and private business.
They were asked to rank the same 33 initiatives, and their top 14 mostly mirrored the survey respondents’.
They agreed with those surveyed that #1, #2, #4, #6, #7, #11, #12, #13 and #14 should be priorities.
But the officials also thought these should be in their top 14:
• Create and train a defined county economic development leadership structure, with one principal agency, a focused program and goals, and partner with local economic development agencies and stakeholders
• Create a business incubator program, emphasizing “economic gardening” and value-added agriculture
• Work with towns on uniform regulations for development
• Assist in redevelopment of the Apollo Plaza and nearby county-owned assets to maximize leverage of public investment both in the form of county property and state/federal infrastructure work and to create synergies with Concord EPT, Monticello Motor Club and other development projects
• The Workforce Development Board needs to enhance coordination of job training with employer needs.
Fredricks and Waterhouse said both groups will end up working together with them to narrow down their top picks to 10-12 main initiatives.
As Acting County Planning Commissioner Jill Weyer put it, these efforts will have to have “buy-in” from all in order to move forward.
“We need obtainable goals to get things going,” agreed Legislator Ira Steingart.
Who’s done what?
Getting there, however, has proven difficult and may continue to be so.
While Fredricks and Waterhouse were scheduled to form a “Community Advisory Committee” later Wednesday with those aforementioned interested members of the public, the politicians and business officials were trying to sort out confusion and concern about the process.
“No one’s questioning the work that’s been done thus far, but it’s obvious there’s a lack of communication with this body [the Legislature],” Legislator Cindy Gieger said, referring to the reason her colleague Alan Sorensen called for Wednesday’s meeting in Monticello.
Some agencies like Cornell Cooperative Extension didn’t even know about what was going on, said Legislator Kitty Vetter (though her call quickly resulted in Executive Director Greg Sandor’s arrival at the Government Center).
Legislature Chairman Scott Samuelson blamed the confusion in part on the loss of the effort’s key leader, former Planning Commissioner Luiz Aragon.
Bethel Woods CEO Darlene Fedun agreed that a “single champion” is again needed in this attempt at a new countywide economic development plan, but she also criticized Wadley-Donovan, noting that to her knowledge Bethel Woods a significant local economic force had not been approached for input since the consultant was first hired.
“I felt somewhat out of the loop,” said Fedun, who also sits on an informal advisory group to Samuelson called the Economic Development Council.
“I’d like to pull in the ‘minor’ players as well,” added Gieger, speaking of small businesses, especially ag-focused ones.
From creating signage to figuring out how many hours have thus far been put in (a requirement of the grant), discussion and debate continued for a while on Wednesday, though the consensus emerged that whatever is ultimately chosen should involve public-private partnerships.
Waterhouse who with Fredricks is preparing a “Phase I” report on the effort thus far acknowledged that figuring out what is desirable vs. what is fiscally feasible can be one of the hardest stages.
“There is never a dearth of good ideas and needs,” he said.