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Tony Collins co-chairs the North Country Regional Economic Development Council
Tony Collins co-chairs the North Country Regional Economic Development Council

North Country economic development plan shaped, questioned

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A new organization created this year by Governor Andrew Cuomo is drafting an economic development plan designed to jump-start the North Country's struggling economy.

As part of that process the North Country Regional Economic Development Council is developing a list of priority projects that could draw as much as $40 million in state funding next year.

The plan will be finalized and sent to Albany in the next couple of weeks, but so far the Council hasn't offered any public details about what projects will be included.

As Brian Mann reports, the lack of information drew criticism last night at a gathering in the Adirondacks.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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So first it’s important to understand that economic development is urgent business in many part of the North Country.

State dollars and property tax revenues that fund many jobs in our region are dwindling and Elizabethtown supservisor Noel Merrihew says that’s a big worry for his community.

"Especially with the county budget. That's one of the doom and gloom messages we're trying not to send.  Any impact on jobs will impact the community."

What’s needed are more private sector jobs, Merrihew says.

He thinks it’s a good thing that Governor Andrew Cuomo scrapped the old empire development zones, which were directed from Albany.

The governor is now letting each region of New York state map out its own ideas for spending economic development dollars.

"With the idea that they best know how to allocate that money," Merrihew said.

The governor created seven different economic development councils. Last night, the group representing most of the North Country met in a school gymnasium in Elizabethtown.

Clarkson University president Tony Collins, who was tapped by Cuomo to co-chair the group, says it’s become clear that the North Country’s future won’t hinge on one big idea or one big industry.

"The truth is that this is not a large industry region and I think people are passionate about that.  They want a region that emphasises ma and pa business, small and medium size businesses."

The North Country’s economic development council is drafting an economic development plan that will be finalized November 4th– just a couple of weeks away.

It’s still unclear what specifics it will include when it goes to the governor.

But the plan will identify more than a dozen economic clusters that are important to the region – everything from biotech and health to defense and wood products.

It will also list priority projects that could draw as much as $40 million dollars in funding next year, in the forms of grants and tax breaks.

The fact that this plan is about to be finalized without any draft being reviewed by the public drew criticism last night.  Stu Baker is from Ticonderoga.

"I've been a little surprised and frankly disappointed at how little information this regional economic development council has been putting on line.  You're looking for comments on a plan under development and there's been no draft materials placed out there for us to comment on.  I think that's a big mistake."

Another wrinkle is that applications for state economic development funding are due at the end of this month and they’ll be judged in part by whether they match the priorities set out in the Council's plan.

But the plan itself won’t be public until after that deadline. 

It’s also unclear exactly how the council will decide which projects to make the priority list for state funding.

At last night’s session, Jason Clark who heads the Business Development Corporation in Massena urged the group to put construction of a new interstate from Plattsburgh to Watertown high on its list.

"Whether there will be state funding involved or state allocation of state personnel hours involved, that's where this really becomes an issue for the Council," Clark said.

But the I-98 or rooftop highway project has been controversial in some communities and at last night’s session council leaders couldn’t say exactly how they’ll decide which ideas are prioritized.

Co-chair Tony Collins acknowledged that there won’t be time for the public to review the final plan before it goes to Albany – but he says there will be chances in future years to make changes.

"We may be under time pressure to make decisions this year. That funding gets reviewed next year and the year after. So I think we will come up quickly with a surprisingly robust strategic plan that will actually stand the test of time."

The North Country economic development plan will be finalized at the council’s meeting November 4th and organizers say more specific draft documents will be available before then.

More public comment sessions are also planned tonight in Indian Lake and next Wednesday in Lowville.

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