Driving Development: Hunt’s dedication to Northern New York connects multiple agencies

Steve Hunt

Northern New York is lucky to have Stephen Hunt on its side. His work to connect multiple groups, events and development projects to improve the north country have been successful and he continues to stay dedicated. NNY Business magazines sat down with Hunt to talk about his work with the state and beyond.

NNYB: You have your hand in many economic development agencies, sitting on boards and even working as the executive director of for the North Country Regional Economic Development Council. How did you get so involved?

HUNT: I love the north country. I love its history, its natural assets, its way of life. I grew up on Watertown’s North Side and got involved in the community when I was young by volunteering at the North Side Improvement League. That’s something I’ve always been interested in – volunteering and helping the community.

NNYB: Why is it so important to you to be so active in these roles?

HUNT: I like to solve problems and want to be part of the solution. I think it’s important to give back to the community you live in and it’s an opportunity to have an impact.

NNYB: Empire State Development is New York State’s economic development agency. What is Empire State Development’s role locally?

HUNT: Our offices in Watertown and Plattsburgh administer a number of programs to help businesses that are looking to grow in the region. We work day-in and day-out with businesses and other economic developers in the region to leverage state and local resources for economic growth.

NNYB: Are there offices that you work with throughout the tri-county area and up to our neighbors in the Adirondacks?

HUNT: Absolutely. In my role at ESD, I’m overseeing the north country offices, but also serving as the executive director of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council. The Regional Council brings together the economic stakeholders in the region from different industries, and I’m always talking and working with those partners.

NNYB: Does the work mirror each other?

HUNT: In many ways we have the same goals, but are employing different tools.

NNYB: The region you oversee is large and somewhat diverse. Can successful economic development in, say, Plattsburgh also be viewed as a success for Watertown?

HUNT: There’s no question that a regional approach is critical to successful economic development in the north country. There are similar opportunities and challenges across the region, and we all benefit from working together to promote our assets. Also, a successful project in Watertown can provide a template for Plattsburgh or Ogdensburg, and vice versa.

NNYB: The north country has had success in attracting Canadian businesses across the border. Is this a market the state sees as a growth area?

HUNT: We’ve seen tremendous growth in the number of Canadian companies in the region over the past decade. The North Country REDC has put an emphasis on our “Canadian Connection,” specifically highlighting the growth opportunities that expanding Canadian businesses can provide.

NNYB: Similarly, Fort Drum would appear to be fertile ground for defense-related industries. Is this an area of development the state promotes?

HUNT: Keeping Fort Drum strong has been a long-time priority. It’s an important military asset and the largest single-site employer in Upstate New York. There’s no question that businesses here—and those looking to grow here—benefit from having Fort Drum in the area.

NNYB: The north country is also home to several colleges and universities. Do these institutions have a role in economic development?

HUNT: Absolutely. These schools are important partners in the state’s economic development programs. They offer research and development, a trained workforce for the future, and they are hands-on partners in our economic development. By design, each Regional Council is led by a representative from academia and one from the business community.

NNYB: Tourism is a vital driver in the north country’s economy. Are there measures being taken to sustain and grow this industry?

HUNT: Tourism is absolutely a priority in the region. Take the Thousand Islands Harbor Hotel for example. Through the CFA (Consolidated Funding Application) program we helped the developers with that project, and we’ve seen a positive ripple effect on an entire community. It’s a case study for how strategic investment by state and local governments can help a private project that has far reaching impacts.

NNYB: The $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative, overseen by Empire State Development, has been billed as having a potential “transformational” effect on downtown Watertown. In your mind, what might a transformed downtown look like?

HUNT: The beauty of the Downtown Revitalization Initiative is that the ideas come from the community. Downtown stakeholders are engaged to create a plan, and the local planning committee selects the projects that are presented to the state. It will be exciting to see the DRI projects come to fruition over the next few years, and all the investments that happen as a result.

NNYB: How do you see downtown Watertown growing over the next couple of years as the DRI projects start to develop?

HUNT: I think transformation in downtown Watertown is already underway. Everyone’s seen the photos of downtown booming with activity. We’ve always talked about how great it was. Now, I think there’s a buzz and positivity about the future of downtown that I haven’t heard before. There are new businesses up and running, and I think the goal is to capitalize on that momentum so more people want to live, work and open businesses there.

NNYB: Did you ever, while growing up, think that you would have the opportunity to make your career locally while making differences through your position region-wide?

HUNT: Even when I was young, I wanted to get involved in the community and help build a better place to live. I think it’s exciting to be part of a renaissance in the region and I feel very blessed to have a job that allows me to give back to my community every day.

NNYB: As a north country native, you are familiar with the term “brain drain” and the outmigration of young people looking for opportunities elsewhere. What needs to be done to combat that?

HUNT: The north country has so many great qualities: natural beauty, great schools and it’s a great place to raise a family. I think that’s what young people are looking for, and we need to continue promoting our assets and making sure there are opportunities for young people to set up roots here.

NNYB: You have worked with local and state politicians throughout your career, including local government agencies. Was this always the path you saw your career taking?

HUNT: I think I was lucky in that I knew exactly what I wanted to do since I was young. From about sixth grade on, I wanted to work in government. I loved the idea that you could be part of the solution. I’d attend City Council meetings, read about the meeting in the next day’s paper, and see the impact of that policy or decision on community.

NNYB: What led to your working with former Congressman William L. Owens?

HUNT: Bill had just come off an historic election and was looking for a team to help build his district operations. I was working across the north country at that time and they were looking for someone with experience in his district. I was excited by the opportunity to work at the federal level on behalf of the region. Bill had crystal clear goals about how to represent the region in Washington and grow the economy in the district, and I’m fortunate I was asked to be part of it.

NNYB: You are extremely involved in your communities, including the Donegal Beard Growing Contest with the North Country Goes Green Festival. What led you to get involved with the festival and, in turn, create a fun and ever-growing contest for our bearded gentlemen?

HUNT: I take my work seriously but try not to take myself too seriously. I love throwbacks and kitsch. The beard contest was inspired by a film called “Growing A Beard” that documented a beard growing contest in Shamrock, Texas, on Route 66. I thought it’d be fun to have something like that here and brought the idea to the Irish Festival folks. The contest is now in its ninth year and has had hundreds of participants. I think it’s one of those community-type events that brings people across demographics together and adds value to the community.

NNYB: You played a key role in starting the Snowtown Film Festival. What was your goal in starting the festival?

HUNT: It’s something I’m really proud of, and proud to be a part of. I think it works on so many levels: it’s a unique experience, it showcases the north country and its filmmakers, and it brings a hip cultural event to downtown Watertown. It’s also a chance to embrace winter in the middle of lake effect snow season, rather than complain about it.

NNYB: The festival has been welcomed and highly attended. How do you feel this encourages downtown economic stimulation?

HUNT: Locating the festival in downtown was there from the inception. It’s built into the mission statement. We’ve always wanted to help create that vibe that successful downtowns are going for. As the festival grows, we continue to look at new ways to maximize the benefits.

NNYB: When reading through your many positions in Northern New York, it is clear that you care about community. What has been one of your greatest accomplishments, either personally or professionally?

HUNT: Without question, my biggest priority is my family. In the end, it’s my hope that I’m contributing to build a better community for them. That would be my greatest accomplishment.

~Interview by Brian Kelly. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.