Changes in Business Climate: NNY Q&A with Jim Murphy

Jim Murphy stands in front of the Massena Town Hall. Christopher Lenney/NNY Business

Since taking over as executive director of the Business Development Corporation for a Greater Massena in late 2018, James Murphy has seen changes in the community’s business climate. As an economic developer, he sees what has worked and what hasn’t worked, and offers advice for potential business owners in the future. 

NNYB: How do you perceive the current business climate in Massena?  

Murphy: Like most communities throughout the U.S., the pandemic has had an impact on Massena. However, the downturn has also provided an important opportunity for the community to redirect efforts and to identify strategies to position the community for long-term success. There are a lot of opportunities, so it isn’t all bad. If we hadn’t had the COVID, we probably would have been on the cusp of a real rebound.  

NNYB: In addition to COVID-19, what else might have contributed to the downturn in the business climate?  

Murphy: Massena was prospering, doing really well, but none of the owners were really reinvesting in the properties. They were maximizing their profits. Then, all of a sudden Alcoa, General Motors and Reynolds started to downsize. All of a sudden it’s a death spiral. Their sales go down. They can no longer afford to keep their properties up. They get out. The properties sit. I think that’s what we’re seeing, especially the retail small business.  

NNYB: What would be one of the keys to a successful business in Massena?  

Murphy: Downtown Massena is transforming by leveraging several opportunities for public and private investments. That’s the key. It’s private investment. I believe very much one of the main reasons we did not get the Downtown Revitalization Initiative (funding) was because we could not demonstrate enough private investment.  

NNYB: What do you see as some of the barriers to establishing businesses in the Massena community?  

Murphy: We are 83 miles away from the closest highway of any significance. All economic development happens right off an (interstate) 87 or 81. Being 80 miles away inland does not help us in any way. So transportation is an issue.  

NNYB: On the flip side, there are also advantages. What are some of those?  

Murphy: If we can marshal it correctly, the power and availability of cheaper hydropower here. That’s potentially our ace in the hole on a lot of levels.  

NNYB: What kind of an interest is there for businesses to relocate to Massena?  

Murphy: I get a call, ‘We’re looking for 20,000 square feet of space with a loading dock and 12-foot ceilings’ and things like that. I get that on a fairly regular basis, people looking for space. I got an email yesterday from a company in Sweden looking to do data centers across the United States and just heard that Massena might be a good spot. They were looking for power. When you’re talking the solar projects and things like that, I think that there is some real opportunity.  

NNYB: What assistance is available for someone who wants to start a business or someone who’s looking to build their business?  

Murphy: I like to be able to help, and every person that starts a business or is operating a business, contact me if they need something. Consider us a resource. If I don’t know it, I know somebody that does. I’m very well connected to the county resources and the state resources. So if you have issues, I would love to know, even if you want to talk about success or you want to talk about how to market. There’s a lot of help out there. Take advantage of it. Even in the worst times, opportunities exist.  

NNYB: What type of grant funding is available to financially assist a potential or established business owner?  

Murphy: I got the town of Massena a $200,000 microgrant for small businesses. I’ve had 15 to 20 applicants that are qualified. So there is absolute interest in people improving their business.  

NNYB: How can business owners provide feedback on how they are doing?  

Murphy: I have partnered with the Massena Chamber of Commerce. We’ll put together a comprehensive business survey to get a feel for how badly people have been hurt, how has it affected their employment status, what are the services they need, and try to develop things in response. The key is, you can’t do them all. The idea is where do we get the most bang, where do we get the most impact. We’re going to try to figure out what are the best things that could help and I’ll try to whatever I can to keep something going with the Chamber.  

NNYB: What does the future look like?  

Murphy:  We will never be what we were, but we will be something different. We will be something better. That’s what I keep telling them. I don’t want to go back to the Big Three, but there’s still a lot. We’re not done yet. My biggest thing is we need some sort of plan. We need to understand where we are. We need to engage people. The hardest part about a plan is implementing. What you need to do is build implementation as part of the plan. You need to make sure funding opportunities and how you pay people are tied to benchmarks.  

~This interview was conducted by Bob Beckstead. It has been edited for length and clarity.