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Regional economic report by Syracuse agency gives north country short shrift

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CANTON - Economic development leaders say the north country largely was left out of a 12-county report led by a Syracuse-based agency offering strategies to make the region’s economy compete globally.

The “New York Agenda for Economic Opportunity” published by CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity purports to reflect input from across its 12-county region, including Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. But North Country Alliance board members criticize the report for focusing too heavily on Syracuse and giving short shrift to the north country’s unique assets: its major agriculture industry, Fort Drum, the Port of Ogdensburg and three international bridge crossings.

Released in November by CenterState, the 54-page report was prepared by the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. Research was funded by 18 regional partners, with Clarkson University the only one outside of Central New York. The report aims to “redefine the region’s economic profile” by detailing strategies for future business growth in today’s global economy. The full report is available online at http://wdt.me/CKrzBu.

The North Country Alliance board passed a resolution in November that concluded findings from CenterState were “not in the best interest of the north country, since there is insufficient representation, consultation and collaboration. ... Efforts are Syracuse- and Onondaga County-centric with minimal north country benefit.”

Not one representative from the NCA or any of the economic development agencies in the seven counties it represents was asked to participate in the development of the report, said James W. Wright, an NCA board member.

To hold CenterState accountable for representing the north country fairly, the NCA board on Nov. 19 established a committee that will collaborate with the agency to better promote the north country’s economic assets. Mr. Wright, executive director for the Development Authority of the North Country, was selected to be the chairman of that committee.

In 2010, the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce merged with the Metropolitan Development Association to form CenterState. Mr. Wright said that the agency’s mission has been to serve Syracuse and Onondaga County, and that the report reflects that.

“I understand that’s their focus, but they shouldn’t say they’re representing the north country,” he said. “I think this report could compromise the north country, because we get lumped in with Central New York.”

Only three north country representatives serve as directors on CenterState’s 70-member board: Anthony G. Collins, president of Clarkson University and co-chairman of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council; John B. Johnson Jr., chairman of the Johnson Newspapers board of directors; and Doreen A. Garrett, president and CEO of Otis Technology Inc., Lyons Falls. According to its website, CenterState has about 2,000 business members across its 12-county region.

The NCA, a private-public consortium established in 1988, oversees economic development in the region without any assistance from CenterState. The North Country Economic Development Council’s seven-county region, which competes for state funding with other state councils, does not include any counties from Central New York, which has its own five-county regional council.

The two councils “have competed against each other and successfully, and it’s because there are distinct differences in the two regions,” Mr. Wright said.

Responding to NCA’s complaint that the report focused too heavily on metropolitan areas, CenterState Senior Vice President David A. Mankiewicz contended that the report was based on data identifying where the largest businesses and industries are.

“When you look across 12 counties at the numbers, the dominant numbers are coming out of Onondaga and Oneida counties,” Mr. Mankiewicz said. “They’re bigger and have bigger businesses. The key message is it’s a regional strategy that isn’t meant to supersede anything that’s done locally. This is about a much larger regional strategy, and we have to face a future where the competition is global, not local. The report itself is really focused on large-scale economic strategies to help pull the region past the economic recession and create growth — it’s not focused on local activities.”

The agriculture industry received limited attention because the report was designed to focus on occupations with higher incomes, Mr. Mankiewicz said. It found that the average annual income of agriculture-related jobs is less than $50,000, according to Farm Credit East.

“One of the questions was how do you want to raise incomes in the region, and there may be other jobs that pay higher wages that could be better targets for us” than agriculture, he said.

Mr. Mankiewicz said the NCA’s assertion that north country leaders were excluded from the study is false; he said CenterState reached out to them for input.

Rather than competing against each other for state funding, regional economic councils from the north country and Central New York would be better off collaborating on regional efforts, he said.

“We would all gain greater results if we put more emphasis collectively across those councils, as opposed to competing with each other,” Mr. Mankiewicz said. “For the most part, the geographic regions are too small to be successful in the global competition. The five counties (in central New York) can’t be successful long-term without the resources and support of institutions and businesses located throughout those 12 counties. We’re too radically dependent on each other. As long as we talk about ‘down there’ and ‘up here,’ we’re never going to be able to accomplish what we need to.”

The north country could lose out on state funding, however, if the state elects to view the region through the perspective of CenterState’s report, said David J. Zembiec, an NCA board member who is the deputy CEO of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency.

“The issue it creates is it could affect funding allocations in terms of how our needs are perceived up here, because we are a less population-dense area than metro regions” in Syracuse, Utica and Ithaca, he said. “If you look at fund allocation based on needs, you want to make sure the north country is well-represented. The state could have a distorted perspective on the priorities when it comes to evaluating our progress on strategies and goals.”

He continued: “We need to establish a link with CenterState that’s apparently not there. Basically, we formed the committee to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

The 12 counties that CenterState represents include Cayuga, Cortland, Herkimer, Jefferson, Lewis, Madison, Oneida, Onondaga, Oswego, Seneca, St. Lawrence and Tompkins.

Not responding to calls seeking comment Tuesday were Deborah F. Stanley, chairwoman of CenterState’s board of directors and president of SUNY Oswego, and Robert M. Simpson, president and CEO of CenterState.

The North Country Alliance made the following observations about the “New York Agenda for Economic Opportunity,” a report released by the CenterState Corporation for Economic Opportunity, Syracuse, intended to reflect the agency’s 12-county region.
• The 54-page report included 85 references to Syracuse (University, city, school district) and only two mentions of Watertown, one of Potsdam and none of Canton, Massena, Ogdensburg or Lowville.
• Only one sentence mentioned Fort Drum as the largest single-site employer in New York state.
• Though the report advocates for improvements to the Port of Oswego, it omits mention of the Port of Ogdensburg and international bridge crossings in Alexandria Bay, Ogdensburg and Massena.
• Agriculture is barely discussed, since the average annual income made by those in the industry is below $50,000; the alliance said this is a major oversight because agriculture is a primary economic driver in the north country.
• No mention of shared services among municipalities in the north country and innovative regional networks, such as the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization.
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