What most county officials see as a near-certainty of one or two casinos coming to Sullivan County colored the conversation at a meeting of the county Community and Economic Development Committee on December 5.
Legislator Cindy Gieger kicked things off, pushing for more attention to attracting small businesses to the county. She read from a prepared statement that she has been “hearing from constituents that current efforts in small business development need to be revisited and renewed. I understand efforts in economic development have been largely centered in the recruitment of the big job creators, while I believe this is worthwhile, my constituents are calling for equitable efforts to recruit small job creators.”
She said that, according to the state comptroller’s office, 87.8% of all businesses in the state have fewer than 20 employees. She proposed that the county economic development agencies, such as the Industrial Development Agency (IDA), the Partnership for Economic Development, the Sullivan County Visitors Association and perhaps the Division of Planning and Environmental Management, set goals for 2014 for attracting new small businesses and use an “aggressive marketing campaign” to do so.
Legislator Ira Steingart said there are various tools and agencies involved in economic development, but the umbrella is the Partnership, and it was important to be consistent and point businesses looking for programs or assistance to the right place. He also said, “Eighty percent of startup businesses don’t make it; that doesn’t mean they’re not getting the best help and the best chances.”
There was a brief discussion about whether zoning could be more standardized throughout the county to aid in the establishment of new business, though it was quickly noted that zoning occurs at the town level, and the county has no real control over it. Steingart said, however, the topic might be brought at a meeting of the town supervisors.
Moving on to a different topic, legislator Alan Sorensen, a former county planning commissioner, noted that the planning department has changed. He ticked off a list of successful programs launched by the planning department.
He said that before he joined the legislature, “the planning department was reorganized and community development was pulled out of planning. I think as we look at the economic development before us, [a reference to the casino] we really need to ramp up. We need to reinstate community development as a core function of the planning division, because I think more than any other entity, there’s a unique focus in terms of research and securing grants, especially at a time when it appears the county is entering a period of growth.”
Marc Baez, who was once again appointed as CEO and president of the Partnership, followed up. He said that years ago a company interested in the county would approach him saying, “We want to know about the demographics, we want to know about the land, about the soil, all these different elements. Planning had an extraordinary geographic information systems (GIS) program that could lay out all that information on a map.” At that time Baez, in the role of the “salesman” for county properties, could give such information to prospective companies. He said the planning department no longer has that capacity and it should be restored.
Baez then pivoted back to the issue of small businesses. He said, “This year there were 162 small businesses that came in; most of them are not ready to go.”
Then he addressed the coming one or two casinos and the passage of Proposition One in the November election. He said, “Once the vote hit, we’re nonstop, we’re going full speed. We’re meeting a host of different businesses that want to come up here.”
Then he switched back to the perception that projects like the one at the former Concord Hotel, Kutsher’s and a few other large projects receive more attention than small businesses. He said “In terms of small business, the partnership focuses on critical mass.” He said that the large projects would attract many employees. He said, “I can tell you, in the next two or three years, there’s going to be quite a bit of demand for employees, probably a shortage,” and he added, once hired those employees would be “demanding the roofers, the mom and pop stores.”
At one point, Jennifer Brylinski, executive director of the IDA, laid out the agency’s record in assisting businesses with fewer than 50 people. She said, “In the last five years, eight of our tax abatement projects have been for small businesses; there have been five small business projects involving the revolving loan fund; there has been one project in the agri-business revolving loan fund; there have been seven projects in the rural micro-entrepreneur; and there have been five small business projects in the Millennium program.”
Before the meeting ended, Sorensen took the discussion back to casinos. He said, “Sullivan County is at a crossroads, and how we develop from this point forward is going to determine the character of the community for years to come. Do we become more like Saratoga, more like Vermont and that very attractive, well designed development that fits into this bucolic setting that we all appreciate and love, or do we become Kissimmee, Florida [near Disney World], the strip retail center with signs and billboards all over the place. And honestly, I think right now, it could go either way.”