November 2015 20 Questions: James W. Wright, DANC

Regional solutions at work

Development Authority of the North Country executive director James W. “Jim” Wright talkes about the Authority’s 30-year history in his office at the Dulles State Office Building, Watertown. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

Development Authority of the North Country executive director James W. “Jim” Wright talkes about the Authority’s 30-year history in his office at the Dulles State Office Building, Watertown. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

30 years later, DANC develops tools for success

A landfill hauler dumps trash at a regional solid waste management
facility. Workers install new fiber-optic cable for a high-speed telecommunications line. An entrepreneur acquires a loan to start a seasonal resort.

Those are but a few activities in Northern New York made possible by the Development Authority of the North Country, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. The authority has seen many growing pains since it was established in June 1985 by the state Legislature, finding numerous ways to contract with municipalities and residents across Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. On the occasion of 30 years of service, we sat down with DANC Executive Director James W. “Jim” Wright to learn more about his agency’s mission and its future.

NNYB: How many staff members does DANC have and what’s the agency’s annual budget?

WRIGHT: 75 staff, $37 million budget.

NNYB: What’s one of the least-known services that DANC provides that people should know?

WRIGHT: The study of local government. We’re currently working in two municipalities. The village of Hermon, we’re working with them — have completed — a dissolution study, and now we’re currently working with Clifton-Fine on a consolidation study. The state of New York provides funding to look at mergers, alternatives, so we’ve been authorized to contract with the municipalities to service those studies because that’s the requirement. There has to be an analysis and a study. We’ve now completed one, and we’re now working on the process of Clifton-Fine. It’s a combination of analyzing all the data about the municipality, presenting it to a citizens’ committee that’s usually comprised of board members — elected as well as appointed individuals — securing their input and developing recommendations for their consideration. It’s a new line of business to us. It’s been done by outside consultants in other areas. This is the first time we’ve had the opportunity to do it. It seems to be a very logical fit with the growth of municipal contracts that we have now.

NNYB: Recycling and the reduction of waste going into the regional landfill has been a consistent initiative for DANC. How successful has that been?

JUSTIN SORENSEN n WATERTOWN DAILY TIMESWRIGHT: We’re seeing progress. You can see it in the decline of the municipal solid waste stream. That’s on a regular recurring basis. It could be better. We’re in the process now of documenting to what degree we’ve seen change in the last five years and will continue working with the municipalities. If you’ve recently seen the coverage of Massena, it demonstrates that people don’t like change. And in turn it takes leadership from the elected officials to encourage that kind of activity. The mayor did just that, and we saw an improvement in their numbers. As a result he saved money for the municipality. It’s a win for everybody. It’s simply a question of local elected leaders encouraging participation. Recycling is actually required by law. It’s a New York state law, and each of the three counties have adopted local laws that require local residents to recycle as well. The problem, as it is with many things of that nature, is enforcement. That’s what you’re encountering some resistance with – the absence of enforcement or inconsistent enforcement. It’s difficult for us to do because by the time it gets to us, we’re really not going to sort through the waste. It has to be on the front end, the collection point.

NNYB: How many years do you estimate have been added to the life of the regional landfill because of these efforts?

WRIGHT: I don’t know that we’ve ever actually calculated that. Part of it is because of the ebb and flow that’s gone on, particularly here in Jefferson County, where you’ve seen growth as a result of housing Fort Drum. So annually, that contributes to a change in the waste stream from demolition projects, that kind of thing. We haven’t done the net calculation in terms of what it would save. But certainly where the new landfill was predicted for 2018, we’re now looking further out. So it’s been at least four years that have been added.

NNYB: DANC recently surveyed residents about recycling. Have you had the results yet? What did you learn?

WRIGHT: That’s what we’re in the process of now. It’s a combination of things we’re looking at. We did an opinion survey where we were looking for feedback and results from residents. We’re also doing a waste composition analysis at each of the three county locations, and then again at the landfill. All of that will be compiled in a single report and shared probably late November or early December. We’ll use that as a planning document going into the next fiscal year.

NNYB: Should Fort Drum land the missile defense site, DANC will play a role in helping to build out needed infrastructure to accommodate it. How well prepared is the agency to help in that effort?

WRIGHT: I think we’re well positioned to assist in that effort. From the authority’s standpoint … it’s a relatively simple reach to get there. We could extend existing capacity. The relations we have with the Army could easily be an extension of the current contract, or depending on the federal requirements, it could become a new contract. From our perspective, hooking up the utility components that we handle — sewer, water and telecomm — it’s doable.

NNYB: DANC has invested millions in building out telecommunications infrastructure for the region. What kind of return on that investment is tangible that people may not realize?

WRIGHT: I think if you look around the community, it was not only to insure that you had access to Broadband but that there was a competition available. Whether it’s Verizon or AT&T or any other service provider, we now provide choices to people. As a private business where you had one provider and that was it available to you, now you have multiple providers. We’ve seen that change occur on a regular basis, which brings more affordable prices to the business community. There are now some 278 businesses we service. You have choice, you have affordability. That was the objective. From the standpoint of Fort Drum, we now have multiple providers on Fort Drum as well. It’s a very competitive opportunity. It’s a tangible benefit to the community.

NNYB: What is the buildout plan? Is it connecting major hubs to this region?

JUSTIN SORENSEN n WATERTOWN DAILY TIMESWRIGHT: If you take a look at the map, you can see that we’re already there. We come across the Adirondacks, over to Plattsburgh, down into Albany, across on a link along the Thruway, Utica and Syracuse. You’ll notice it’s all a series of loops. There’s the bigger circle and the smaller circles; that’s to give us the redundancies and the access that we’re looking for, the egress from the area. It’s like an electrical circuit. If one gets severed or blocked, you go up the other way. And all of that is done instantaneously. The next primary builds right now, we’re focusing on a public safety network that links the E911 centers throughout the region. We continue to expand the two telemedicine networks and the two educational networks where we provide services through BOCES and to universities. They’re all continuing to grow. New builds are on the basis of those networks. We continue to have conversations with others in the North Country Regional Economic Development Council footprint, particularly in Herkimer and Hamilton counties. Actually telecommunications (the initiative) just commemorated 10 years. You had the initial buildout in the three-county region from Syracuse, up through Oswego, into Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence (counties). Since then, you had the (Economic Recovery Act) funding that the federal government issued and that awarded us funds to build south to Utica as well as east through the Adirondacks — both state priorities — to Plattsburgh and Elizabethtown and down to Albany. Those have been the two big phases of construction. It’s critical if you talk to anybody, whether it’s a small-business individual or your major businesses: having access to high-speed Broadband is a significant advantage. And it’s become so accessible in other areas that it’s a significant disadvantage if it’s not available. We’re in a unique position in that we’ve closed that gap. The state has an initiative to deploy 100 megabits of Broadband throughout the state. We will work with the state to continue that endeavor. That’s the kind of speed that businesses and industry are looking for.

NNYB: As a rural area as large as we are, are we ahead of other like areas?

WRIGHT: I think we were initially, 10 years ago. Others have been closing that gap. I think there’s a recognition that the investment has to be made to be competitive. We initially made the investment because our school districts were not being serviced by the resident provider, if you will. It was very clear that investment was not going to be made. The authority was asked to fill that void. That continues to this day in many instances. There are many areas the private sector does not have the return on investment. We have the advantage that we’re not profit-driven; we’re not paying taxes That enables us to provide services to areas that normally wouldn’t have it.

NNYB: What is the life span of the technology?

WRIGHT: That’s always the challenge. It’s easy to upgrade. It’s technology that is consistently turning over improvements. Right now you’re looking at usually a seven-year life cycle. We have been through one major upgrade of our electronics already. The cable itself is fine. The fiber is fine. It’s really the electronics you’re working through. With each generation of improvement, you’re making a significant investment in electronics. We’ve made an investment of several million dollars in the last couple of years to upgrade our capabilities. It is a significant investment to maintain all the assets and stay current.

NNYB: Thanks to rapidly changing technology, GIS is a new initiative that’s somewhat mind boggling. Rural firefighters can use iPads to find hydrants, for example. How has that expanded?

WRIGHT: It’s the technology that’s available. Our objective is trying to deploy that uniformly across the region. That requires an initial investment to actually do the mapping. New York state has funds available. We access the state funds on behalf of a group of municipalities. We will then go in and award the money and map the infrastructure of the municipalities. The municipal assets get GIS’d. We now have contracts with 52 different municipalities to provide GIS services.

NNYB: DANC’s work to support water and sewer infrastructure for smaller towns has saved those towns significant money by providing engineering expertise. Can you tell us how that came to pass?

WRIGHT: We started with our core business – the sewer and water connections to Fort Drum. From that Fort Drum wanted to see expansion. As a result you have water and sewer districts that have developed. With that our internal engineering capabilities grew. We now take on projects that are probably the largest projects that most of these municipalities are going to encounter. When you’re talking about projects that are 2 to 3 to 10 million dollar investments in infrastructure and volunteer governing boards that don’t have the expertise with major construction projects, that’s where we can be beneficial. Many of our contracts are technical-assistance agreements, where we’re providing engineering services and project management we become the eyes and the ears of the municipality in working with their engineers and contractors. It helps the municipality have continuity and contacts to work with us. We can work with a municipality throughout the process. We now have contracts with 99 municipalities in various forms.

NNYB: The Authority recently agreed to provide a $200,000 revolving line of credit to re-establish a housing rehab program run by Neighbors of Watertown. Why is this an important initiative for the Authority?

WRIGHT: We have led the effort over the last half dozen years to address the identified need for affordable housing within the community. And when I say affordable, I mean access to quality housing within the community that had heretofore not been available, whether it was Fort Drum-related or community-related. We worked with Fort Drum, and the community had an identified goal of building 1,100 new units. That has been met and they are either in place or on the drawing board for further construction. From that vantage point, we’ve been successful. What that means is it provides people choices. That was one of our objectives was to make sure there were choices in housing. Now that you have choices available, it means that some of these less-attractive offerings now need to be rehabilitated. You see it whether it’s a privately owned product or federally subsidized product. They all need investments. What we know is still an identified need is low-income or affordable housing. That’s not being met by the marketplace, so we will continue to focus on those endeavors to make quality housing available by rehabbing existing housing so it becomes more attractive and meets people’s needs better. This is one of those projects.

NNYB: What is the most challenging aspect of providing regional leadership and service across such a large geographic territory?

WRIGHT: The diversity of interests. On any given day, whether it’s recycling goals or broader economic issues, there is a competition that remains within the region. We try to work with that to facilitate it so it becomes a positive force rather than a negative force. This is particularly true in the economic development arena, where we encourage a regional perspective rather than competing against one another. That still exists to this day, so that becomes the hurdle: the diversity of interests. People from the outside look at it and say it is all rural Northern New York and should be the same, in fact. But it is not. There are differences in perspective among the three counties.

NNYB: How important has building the right team of managers and staff been to DANC’s success?

JUSTIN SORENSEN n WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES

JUSTIN SORENSEN n WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES

WRIGHT: It’s critical. The success that we’ve had over the past half-dozen years is directly attributable to the team of managers we’ve been able to recruit as well as the promotions internally. Several of the current managers were on staff; they have been promoted to take on additional responsibilities. That’s been key. Whether it’s at the management level or the entry level, we do the same things. We cross train, we have shared responsibilities. That is the dynamic that has enabled us to grow and be productive.

NNYB: Your staff includes many up-and-coming younger professionals. What can other businesses and agencies do to recruit and retain quality young professionals?

WRIGHT: The key is we give them challenges and we give them opportunities. We are diverse in what we do, so it is not going to become routine.

NNYB: Where do you see this agency in 10 years?

WRIGHT: We continue to build upon the municipal partnership. We’ve consistently grown year after year in terms of our contracts with municipalities. In terms of where New York state is headed, where finances are headed, shared services become more and more an option for people. We’re in a position to do that, to assist. That’s a very direct savings to municipalities.

NNYB: Your board vice chairman recently said that you “make sure the board has a vision for where we’re going.” How do you keep that vision on track?

WRIGHT: Annually we spend a day talking about where we think the Authority can and should be going. On a couple of different occasions, we’ve brought in municipal leaders who have worked with us to evaluate what it is we are doing for them. Is that an appropriate level of service? Are there more opportunities? Are those opportunities a good fit?

NNYB: What’s the best advice you’ve ever followed during your career?

WRIGHT: It was some advice my father gave me that was really kind of twofold. One is that you personally have to ask people to invest in you. The other piece of it was kind of a spinoff on the Boy Scout troop that he had me involved in. It was do your homework. Or as the Boy Scouts say, “Be prepared.” But it’s always been do your homework so that you understand what you’re dealing with. From there, you can make informed decisions. That becomes relatively easy when you have the information.

NNYB: After a long career in public service, are you in the ideal job now?

WRIGHT: I think I am. That’s what my wife tells me. I was always more comfortable being an administrator/manager than a legislator. From a personal standpoint of satisfaction, it’s seeing things get done in a timely fashion. We joke that our motto for strategic planning is “Just Do It.” We have defined objectives, we’re looking to meet them, and we do that. I enjoy the direct reward of managing and seeing the project completed.

The James W. “Jim” Wright file

Age: 66

Job: Executive director, Development
Authority of the North Country, for six years

Family: Wife Carol;. daughter Alison
Nugent, 31; sons Conner, 18, and Alec, 16; two grandchildren

Hometown: Cayuga; lives in Watertown

Education: SUNY Oswego; Maxwell School of Public Administration at Syracuse University. Selected to participate in the Program for Senior Executives, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University and the National Security Seminar at the U.S. Army War College

Career: Child-protection case worker; Oswego County personnel director; Oswego County administrator; Jefferson County administrator; 15 years as a state senator

Best book you’ve read and would recommend: “The Power Broker” by Robert Caro

— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length, clartity and grammar to fit this space