Higher ed, tourism important drivers for St. Lawrence Co.

Daniel N. Valyou, facility manager for a blade test facility at Clarkson University, talks about how wind turbine blades are stress tested at Clarkson’s Center for Advanced Materials Processing  in August. Jason Hunter/ NNY Business

Daniel N. Valyou, facility manager for a blade test facility at Clarkson University, talks about how wind turbine blades are stress tested at Clarkson’s Center for Advanced Materials Processing
in August. Jason Hunter/ NNY Business

With five colleges and universities and more than 200 rivers and streams, growth in St. Lawrence County is in some ways about finding a way to market these assets.

Patrick J. Kelly, St. Lawrence County Industrial Development Agency CEO, said installing adequate broadband infrastructure is a key to economic development. Slic Network Solutions Inc. secured $33 million in federal stimulus money in 2010 to install 660 miles of fiber-optic cable in St. Lawrence County and 136 miles in Franklin County. In August, DANC received $250,000 from Empire State Development to install six miles of fiber optic cable in Canton and Rensselaer Falls, which will connect to a system that Slic operates there.

“One of the most important things is the development of broadband,” Clarkson University President Tony Collins said, noting broadband’s role in business development since so much can now be done remotely. “We’re reaching the point where it’s not the hindrance to development that it was even two years ago. It makes us more reliable and that’s a huge advantage.”

In addition to redevelopment efforts at industrial sites like the former General Motors powertrain plant in Massena and Star Lake’s former Jones & Laughlin Steel Co., Mr. Kelly said identifying potential relationships between higher education and economic development is significant to the county’s future development strategy.

“The strength we have with the colleges and universities is going to become more important to us,” he said. The IDA recently leased more space in Potsdam Commerce Park to Clarkson University, which it uses for various research initiatives including biofuel testing.

“There are times we have assets that match the work they’re doing,” he said. “The trick is finding ways to connect what we’re doing and what the college is doing in ways that result in job creation and development.”

The IDA recently assisted ACCO Brands with its move of manufacturing and distribution operations from Brampton, Ont., to its Ogdensburg distribution center, providing sales tax exemptions for equipment purchases and infrastructure improvements and reimbursements for training expenses. The company is expected to add 30 jobs as a result. Mid last month DeFelsko Corp. and A.N. Deringer Inc. announced plans to create 55 jobs between them as part of expansions and relocations.

A focus on entrepreneurial education and incubating startup companies at Clarkson University has also resulted in tangible business growth. Clarkson’s Shipley Center for Innovation has led to 61 startups since it began in October 2010 and has an additional 170 projects in the pipeline. The Peyton Hall business incubator was re-launched in July 2011 after renovation of the space to include four wet labs, 13,000 square feet of office space, two fully furnished conference rooms and in-house Web development and prototyping services. The incubator now has 23 businesses, which have garnered more than $3 million in funding though angel investment, venture capital and business plan competitions.

Last month, Clarkson ranked 14th on The Princeton Review’s 2014 list of “Top 25 Undergraduate Schools for Entrepreneurship Programs.” University officials say more than 800 people have taken the Reh Center for Entrepreneurship’s My Small Business 101 course, which primarily targets regional small business owners. The course has led to an 85 percent business survival rate for those who complete it, the university says.
Mr. Collins said Clarkson’s location in a county with other higher education institutions helps inculcate the kind of support and intellectual vibrancy often key to startup success.

“We’re beginning to see that we can create that environment here,” he said.

Clarkson itself is in growth mode, in the midst of a multi-million dollar downtown redevelopment project that includes renovation of Clarkson Hall for health professional programs, an area in which Mr. Collins said the university is seeing notable growth, and the renovation of Peyton Hall. The university last month began renovations to its historic Old Main building that will house the north country’s first green data center using IBM technologies and research facilities for the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries.

Outside of higher education, FISHCAP, a public-private partnership established in 2010 with an annual budget of $170,000 for its first three years, takes aim at the need to market the county’s plethora of natural resources, particularly as “the fishing capital of the world.”

Thanks largely to FISHCAP, the four-day Bassmaster Elite Tournament held in August in Waddington set an all-time attendance record for the nationwide, drawing 34,100 people.

“We broke ground in every possible way,” said Pat L. McKeown, executive director and the CEO of St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of FISHCAP, adding that there is no question that FISHCAP is what brought Bassmaster to the region. “We’ve long thought the world saw what kind of fisheries we have here and what better way to try to go after one of the premier fishing competitions in the country.”

FISHCAP coordinator Donald R. Meissner said Bassmaster was the result of a year of negotiations with tournament officials, who had “no consideration of having an event up here,” as the organization typically selects places with larger population bases.

“FISHCAP was the reason they came here,” he said. “It was the organization they had heard about.”

He added that the event was an overwhelming success for the area and everyone who worked on it, demonstrating the area’s huge base of local people willing to come together and volunteer.

“The event was a colossal success not just by itself, but for what it represents for the future of the area,” he said. “This is just the beginning as I see it.”

Phase two of FISHCAP will concentrate on marketing recreational fishing in the entire region, expanding into Jefferson and Franklin counties, and across the border into Ontario and Quebec. The organization has applied for funding through the state’s regional economic development council and has already received a commitment of $20,000 from the Alcoa Foundation. While Bassmaster seldom hosts the tournament in the same location two years in a row, FISHCAP plans to work for its return in 2015 and hopes the exposure will lead to repeat tourism from participants in Bassmaster and to interest from other fishing organizations looking to host similar events in the region, Mr. Meissner said.

“I can see the day when people from all over New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Ontario and Quebec flock to the north country for fishing excursions,” Ms. McKeown said. “I think we could be a tourism mecca.”

-Leah Buletti