Study outlines 5-year strategy to boost St. Lawrence County’s economy

Matt Warren, right, a customer support representative for Frazer Computing, Inc. provides phone support Wednesday at Frazer Computing, Inc., 6196 US-11 in Canton. Also pictured is Mike Burnett, left, also a customer support representative. Photo by Jason Hunter, Watertown Daily Times.

Matt Warren, right, and Mike Burnett provide customer phone support Wednesday at Frazer Computing Inc., Route 11, Canton. A five-year plan compiled for the New York Power Authority recommends small business growth among ways to boost St. Lawrence County’s economy. Photo by Jason Hunter, Watertown Daily Times.

CANTON — A $4 million economic development study just released by the New York Power Authority lays out a five-year strategy for reversing St. Lawrence County’s stagnant economy.

The in-depth report was prepared by McKinsey & Co., a Washington, D.C., consulting firm that was paid by NYPA.

The report recommends jump-starting the economy by combining four major areas: small business growth, increased tourism and recreation, re-purposed manufacturing and diversified agriculture.

A “signature initiative” project is identified for each of those four areas.

“This is not a NYPA study, this is a St. Lawrence County study that was commissioned by NYPA,” said Gil C. Quiniones, NYPA chief executive officer. “This is not NYPA coming in to fund everything needed to implement the study.”

The report recommends creating a diversified economy that’s capable of creating 1,000 to 1,900 new jobs by 2020.

Taking a countywide approach to the initiatives will be more effective than focusing on projects for individual communities, according to the recommendations. This may require some “uncomfortable” changes such as consolidation of agencies, the report notes.

“The time for parochialism should be put aside,” Mr. Quiniones said.

The study differs in several ways that should make it more effective than past studies, he said.

More than 100 county leaders provided input to consultants who traveled to the north country over the past several months to conduct interviews. Also, Mr. Quiniones pointed to several factors that put the north country in a stronger position than in prior years.

Those include access to low-cost power through NYPA and funding available through the state’s regional economic development councils and other sources. This study includes an implementation plan that calls for setting up integration teams that will focus on specific areas.

Ideas in the report include establishing a cluster of commercial-sized greenhouses on “shovel-ready” industrial sites available for development.

The year-round operation would likely involve growing tomatoes at 25-acre facilities that could each employ 100 to 150 people and grow enough tomatoes for 800,000 people, according to the report.

The study was paid for by NYPA as part of the 10-year renewal of the relicensing agreement that allows the agency to continuing operating the FDR Power Dam, Massena.

Patrick J. Kelly, director of the county’s Industrial Development Agency, said the report “is ambitious and aggressive in terms of implementing the strategies.”

“This is a unique time to have a study like this because of the things we now have access to,” Mr. Kelly said, referring to low-cost power and funding.

Over the past five years, 30 percent more businesses in the county have opened than closed, according to the report. The county’s agriculture sector is highly dependent on dairy. The manufacturing sector has declined, leaving an economy that’s heavily focused on healthcare and government. St. Lawrence County is also plagued by above-average unemployment and poverty rates.

Pursuing all of the initiatives would cost an estimated $300 to $400 million, including up to $55 million in performance-based investment incentives. Another $30 to $40 million would be needed to fund operating expenses necessary to implement the initiatives,

Funding sources include $115 million the county is expected to have available for economic development over the next five years. The state’s Consolidated Funding Application could yield $50 to $60 million over five years. Private investment, bank loans and philanthropic grants could also be available.

Tourism spending is flat in St. Lawrence County while it’s growing in other parts of the state and nation, according to the report. To reverse the trend, the county is advised to leverage its outdoor recreation assets, especially fishing. Revitalizing Main Streets should be another goal to attract visitors.

“Whatever the model, it must maximize alignment, accountability and mutual support,” the report states. “It must be a county-wide mindset which emphasizes interdependence of towns and villages.”

Agencies involved with economic development should combine efforts, rather than working separately, by defining their role in attracting companies and negotiating deals. Those include the county’s IDA, Ogdensburg Bridge & Port Authority and Empire State Development, NYPA, Massena Electric Department, village, town and county officials, business leaders, colleges and universities.

“I think there’s a balanced set of strategies that can be worked on at the county level and in cooperation with the communities that makes sense,” Mr. Kelly said.

Research for the study was conducted over the past several months by consultants from the McKinsey firm who traveled here and interviewed more than 100 different people from a wide range of sectors, including elected state and county officials, business leaders, farmers, hospital administrators, small business owners, manufacturers and others.

A diverse 20-member advisory committee met regularly to review the study as it progressed over the past several months.

Noting that the manufacturing sector has been a declining part of the county’s economy, the report recommends reducing reliance on a single major employer such as the Alcoa plant in Massena which last year threatened to close the majority of its operations and eliminate 487 jobs. An influx of state funding persuaded the company to keep the plant operating for at least three and a half years.

NYPA spokesman Steven P. Gosset said the report differs from past economic development studies in that it identifies specific projects in the county and outlines a plan for implementing each of the major ideas.

“There hasn’t been enough implementation in the past,” Mr. Gosset said. “It’s time to stop talking and start working.”

He said NYPA will provide a leadership role in organizing groups that will target specific areas identified in the plan. The agency also intends to provide an economic development manager to help implement the projects.

Initiatives

The following is a summary of the four major development areas mentioned in the report and a “signature” initiative for each:

1. Accelerate agriculture and agribusiness: commercial-scale greenhouse cluster that would have access to low-cost energy and state and local incentives. Another objective is to increase dairy productivity by creating a dairy technology fund that would provide technical assistance, grants and low-cost loans. An agriculture tech center could be created that showcases cutting-edge processes such as robotic milking parlors.

2. Re-energize advanced materials manufacturing: Enhance firm attraction by establishing a dedicated domestic and international marketing and business development campaign. This includes increasing awareness of county assets, creating bully pulpit for relationship building with companies, creating a united effort among stakeholders.

3. Expand small business: Create an integrated program that provides networks, training and coaching to upscale entrepreneurs. Objectives include retaining high potential talent from colleges and Fort Drum and creating a platform to attract future entrepreneurs.

4. Revitalize communities, tourism, mindsets: Create a $10 million St. Lawrence County Revitalization Fund that would provide grants, loans for tourism, marketing and Main Street activities. Objectives include promoting tourism with themes such as fishing and water sports.

By Susan Mende, Watertown Daily Times