Local experts discuss north country’s economic outlook at Chamber event

The Economic Forecast event featured a panel of five speakers discussing the economic trouble spots and assets in the north country.

The Economic Forecast event featured a panel of five speakers discussing the economic trouble spots and assets in the north country. Photo by Stephen Swofford, Watertown Daily Times.

Trying to get a glimpse of the local economic future is more like staring into an opaque globe than a crystal ball, noted Donald C. Alexander, chief executive officer of Jefferson County Economic Development.

However, a group of experts representing different facets of the local economy gathered Wednesday at the Watertown Ramada Inn to help paint a clearer picture.

Hosted by the Greater Watertown Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Forecast 2016 event featured a panel of six speakers that included Mr. Alexander; Denise K. Young, executive director of the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization; Franz Philippe, acting director of Fort Drum Plans, Training, Mobilization, and Security; Stephen Hunt, north country regional director of Empire State Development; Scott Kingsley, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Community Bank System, Inc., and Kenneth Mix, development coordinator for the City of Watertown.

Mr. Alexander highlighted a few “trouble spots” that loom over the local economy. With a $15 minimum wage possibly coming to all state workers, Mr. Alexander said employers worry about the economic implications that could potentially break businesses.

As the value of the Canadian dollar declines, local commerce has also dipped, and Mr. Alexander said decreased sales tax could continue to have a negative impact on finances.

Lower milk prices have decreased profits to agriculture, Mr. Alexander added, and the state’s tainted business environment has not been welcoming.

But it’s not all bad. From Fort Drum to renewable energy, Mr. Alexander said the area does have assets that could keep the local economy above water.

Healthcare

Restructuring the relationship between healthcare and patients will be a continued focus this year, Mrs. Young said.

With the implementation of the state’s Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment program in north country hospitals, she said, payment reform plays a significant role in that focus.

DSRIP will distribute nearly $8 billion to hospital groups and health care providers that meet key milestones over the next five years. In the north country, that means increasing outpatient treatment to reduce hospital visits and easing access to primary care and behavioral health services.

Mrs. Young said telemedicine will play a larger role in expedited healthcare.

With continued advancements in mobile technology, she said, telemedicine will become more widely used as more information that was once available only at the doctor’s office can be accessed through the Web or by mobile device.

Mrs. Young said the increased ease of access will cut time for families that have to travel as far as Syracuse for short doctor visits. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that legalizes telemedicine in New York state in 2015. Now it’s just a matter of implementing the technology, Mrs. Young said.

Mrs. Young said it’s also about helping patients fully understand the specifics of healthcare and its cost.

“We are moving into an age where there needs to be transparency around cost and quality of care so that we can be good consumers,” she said, adding that more information will become available to patients in the coming years.

Additionally, Mrs. Young said drug prices in the United States are likely to rise exponentially. She said over $100 billion is wasted on pharmaceuticals that are not taken by patients but still paid for by insurance companies. To curb the waste, Mrs. Young said better communication between health care providers and patients will help doctors be more proactive in deciding the most useful option for a patient.

Fort Drum

Mr. Philippe estimated Fort Drum’s direct economic impact in 2015 was $1.2 billion. Around $1 billion of that impact, he said, was through payroll of soldiers and civilians working on the base. The post estimated that its spending created $1.296 billion in activity in the 2014 fiscal year.

Mr. Philippe said the unique relationship between Fort Drum and the north country can’t be taken for granted.

Recently, Mr. Philippe noted Fort Drum’s partnership with the Development Authority of the North Country to implement a joint land-use study for smarter community development in and around military installations.

“Not only can we promote economic development in the north country, but we can also protect Fort Drum’s military value,” he said.

Additionally, Mr. Philippe said Fort Drum is developing a new program for soldiers transitioning back into civilian life. He said about 275 Fort Drum soldiers transition out of Fort Drum each month.

“You have 275 candidates for jobs,” he said. “They are skilled, have great leadership abilities, they’re adaptable and agile, and a lot of them stay here in the north country.”

Through the program, the post will partner with local industries and businesses to develop training opportunities for soldiers, therein preparing them for civilian life. The industries who participate in the program will also have qualified candidates to choose.

For example, Mr. Philippe said Fort Drum recently partnered with NYSERDA and SUNY Canton to train 125 soldiers to work with photovoltaic applications.

Housing

Improved housing in the area, especially with Fort Drum nearby, is critical to community development, Mr. Mix said.

“Without the housing, you can’t really support Fort Drum, so that’s why there has been such an emphasis on building housing,” he said.

Mr. Mix noted that Watertown’s housing stock is older than average on state and national levels, creating a higher need for rehabilitation. He said lower income levels also means property owners cannot properly keep up on home maintenance.

But Mr. Mix said the affordable housing model could be a solution. The Woolworth Building in Public Square, which contains 50 apartments, recently finished renovations. Maple Court Apartments in Watertown is also being rehabilitated, and Mr. Mix said there is a new project in the works to construct a new group of properties called “Black River Apartments.”

Downtown Watertown also has more development opportunities on the horizon. Mr. Mix said the streetscapes and buildings in Public Square have been rehabilitated in the last 30 years, but the work could be expanded to Court and Arsenal streets. He also said more efforts will be made to boost downtown activity, including more events and businesses, with help from the Watertown Local Development Corporation.

Sponsors of the Economic Forecast 2016 event included Community Bank, Carthage Area Hospital, Visual Technologies Corporation and NNY Business.

By Brian Molongoski, Watertown Daily Times