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CenterState CEO presented their economic development plan at Clarkson last week. Photo: Sarah Harris
CenterState CEO presented their economic development plan at Clarkson last week. Photo: Sarah Harris

North Country economy: start-ups and data hub?

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There are dozens of economic development agencies and strategies in the North Country. Now, there's another. CenterState CEO, a Syracuse-based economic development group, spent two years studying a 12 county region that includes St. Lawrence, Jefferson, and Lewis Counties, as well as Syracuse and the Finger Lakes. They want to bring high-tech business to the region.

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Sarah Harris
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The North Country is home a dizzying array of economic development groups. First, each county has an industrial development agency. A lot of villages and towns have their have their own economic development offices and microloan programs. Then there are regional groups, like the Development Authority of the North Country and the River Valley Redevelopment Agency. Plus there are state efforts like the Regional Economic Development Council and Cuomo’s Start Up New York. And many university have small business incubators.

This is not an exhaustive list. And yet, the St. Lawrence County unemployment rate, as of August 2013, is 9.1% – the highest outside of New York City.

A lot of agencies means a lot of plans on how to build jobs and prosperity in the region.

Now, CenterState CEO, a Syracuse –based group, has introduced yet another plan.

Amy Liu, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, told a packed room at Clarkson last Friday that this plan is different than the rest.

"No more fragmented efforts, no more inter-jurisdictional competition, no more small bored plans without scale and the inability to fund them all. This is about prioritizing a few key catalytic projects that will make a difference in the community."

CenterState president Rob Simpson says the region needs to grow its exports abroad, find venture capital to support home-grown businesses, and modernize local government.

And he says this 12-county region should hitch its economic wagon to an emerging field called "data to decisions."

"Increasingly a tremendous amount of data out there in the universe is being collected, it’s being analyzed, it’s being interpreted and it’s being used to make better human decisions or better autonomous decisions. And that marketplace is  something that is going to grow by $100 billion in the next 5 years. And we want to find ways to help our existing companies tap into that growing market, create jobs and create wealth right here."

A panel of local academic and business leaders weighed in.

Mark Cornett runs Next ID Biometrics in Potsdam, a start-up that makes fingerprint software for security. He says local universities should take the lead on implementing the plan.

"I would look at Clarkson and other institutions to really embrace the emergening technologies like 3D printing, to really invest in those  efforts. Put a program in place, recruit some faculty and really embrace those driving trends."

Clarkson president and regional economic development chair Tony Collins is on the board of CenterState. He says that in order to build the north country into a business hub, a tech center, a place where start-ups come, there has to be change in culture. The North country has to become less risk-averse.

"We have all the resources, so it’s really, I hate to say it, it’s really cheerleading and exciting the region about the fun of being involved in this."

But some people say that cultural shift takes more than just cheerleading.

Mike Dinan runs the Adirondack Semester at Clarkson and was a counselor in local schools.  

He says the plan doesn’t quite square with North Country identity. And that learning to be innovative isn’t easy for young people here.

"Living in poverty, being complacent, seeing their parents being poor and desperate, that’s a continuation that seriously needs to be addressed in order for our whole region to be impacted in a positive way. It’s not going to happen without that."

He says St. Lawrence County identifies as a rural place, and opportunities like ecotourism, hunting and guiding might make more sense.

"Because there is a disconnect between who is here in our culture and where they wanna be." 

Could this region become a start-up rich, data-processing hub?

Centerstate CEO is taking steps in that direction. They’re working to build a $40 million seed fund to support entrepreneurs.

But, like all economic development plans, the proof is in the pudding.

 

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