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Politicians and economic development leaders join Governor Cuomo on stage in Albany. The North Country is the only region to win extra dollars each year of the program.  (Photo: State of NY)
Politicians and economic development leaders join Governor Cuomo on stage in Albany. The North Country is the only region to win extra dollars each year of the program. (Photo: State of NY)

Is Cuomo's Regional Council really boosting North Country jobs?

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Over the last three years, the Regional Economic Development Council created by Governor Andrew Cuomo has funneled more than $270 million to the North Country.

The North Country Council has moved the center of the debate over the region's economic future.

From job-creation to attracting new investment, to planning for major transportation and tourism projects, the volunteers who run the program have emerged as key players, with direct access to Governor Andrew Cuomo and other state officials.

Support for the Council system has been growing steadily. But big questions remain about how effective it has been in sparking new jobs and new private sector growth.

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Reported by

Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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I think there's a lot of money being spread out...but we really don't know if we're getting a good bang for our buck.
When you read the North Country Regional Council’s 2013 economic development plan it sounds a lot like a cheerleading document – an inspirational tool as much as an investment guide.

There’s a quote from Teddy Roosevelt: “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” 

And in the very first sentence, the document describes the Council’s work as a “journey of transformation”

That’s a tone that Governor Andrew Cuomo embraced when he visited Saranac Lake earlier this month, talking about the "positive energy" in the region.

Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to a packed house at the Downhill Grill earlier this month. The Regional Council process has been great politics.  Is it great economics? (Photo:  Mark Kurtz)
Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to a packed house at the Downhill Grill earlier this month. The Regional Council process has been great politics. Is it great economics? (Photo: Mark Kurtz)
"I believe that the North Country is fundamentally in a different place than it was and I believe in the energy in life," he said.

If that sounds a little self-helpy, there is a logic here. 

It’s the idea that the North Country has always had a lot of potential, but we’ve been held back by a lack of targeted investment and by negative image.

The region has been seen – by many local leaders as well as outsiders - as a northern rust belt, with 19th century industries and more feuds than partnerships.

Garry Douglas, co-chair of the North Country’s regional council, says this project has begun to shift that reputation – making the North Country a hopeful place where entrepreneurs and corporations might invest.

"I like to think that it also is a reflection of confidence, or a growing degree of confidence by investors in places like the Adirondacks.  We seem to have a plan, it seems to be working, maybe it's time to take a second look."

The Regional Council process has directed more than $90 million a year in public investment to the North Country every year since 2011.

That’s a lot of cash.  Douglas is convinced that the regional plan and those investment dollars are serving as a kind of catalyst.  He points to the two new hotel projects now underway in Saranac Lake.

New York's Regional Economic Development Council regions. Image: http://regionalcouncils.ny.gov/
New York's Regional Economic Development Council regions. Image: http://regionalcouncils.ny.gov/
"Ideas for a hotel that maybe they've been thinking of for ten years, they're starting to have the confidence that...now finally it's time to move," he said.

The Council approach – which uses volunteers from the business, non-profit and local government community to help vet projects – has grown in popularity year-by-year.

Congressman Bill Owens, who worked on economic development projects in the Plattsburgh area before going to Washington, says the amount of local influence on how government dollars are invested is key.

"The folks here know what's needed in the communities and can allocate the resources better," he said.

People volunteering for the council say the system means more local control and it’s also brought the North Country together in new ways.

Leaders from Watertown are connecting with business-people and local officials in Plattsburgh. 

Ogdensburg community organizers are sharing ideas with people in Hamilton County.  A struggling research lab like Trudeau Institute in Saranac Lake is connected with a growing university – Clarkson in Potsdam.

The North Country regional council’s latest report claims that all that synergy is having a measurable impact on jobs and investment.

That report issued in September says that 28 out of 26 projects funded in 2012 are either under contract or underway. 

The group also found that every dollar of taxpayer investment leveraged nearly seven bucks of private sector money.

By the group’s in-house estimate that work helped to retain and create more than 1200 jobs. 

But not everyone is convinced that this approach – the cheerleading and the taxpayer investment - is actually paying off.

"If history is any indicator, this isn't really an effective way to create jobs," says Ron Deutsch with a group called New Yorkers for Fiscal Fairness. 

He argues out that a lot of the $274 million invested in the North Country is old milk in a new bottle – money that’s been repackaged that would have been spent here anyway.

He says that New York has a long history of backing projects with a lot of fanfare that don’t wind up leveraging much real economic change.

"There's a lot of money being spread out all across New York state right now, but we don't really know if we're getting good bang for our buck."

Deutsch is convinced that taxpayer dollars would be better spent  on basic government services like schools and roads and other infrastructure.

That skepticism was echoed last year during the Assembly campaign in Plattsburgh, when Republican challenger Karen Bisso, who lost in the primary, described the Regional Council’s investment in the Bombardier plant a corporate pork.

Business leaders, too, are often a little vague on how this kind of government investment fits into their larger decisions about where to grow and where to expand jobs. 

Governor Cuomo shakes hands with Kevin Bushey (front) and Mitchell Graham workers at Bombardier in 2012. Photo: Sarah Harris
Governor Cuomo shakes hands with Kevin Bushey (front) and Mitchell Graham workers at Bombardier in 2012. Photo: Sarah Harris
Robert Furniss is vice president for Bombardier sales in the US.  Last year, he told North Country Public Radio that the Plattsburgh plant would likely have expanded even without state funds. 

"Primariy the market drives that," Furniss said.  "The expansion was long planned."

Still, Furniss praised state and local officials for helping with economic development, saying those efforts were a "crucial element" in Bombardier's decision.

Three years into the Regional Council project, North Country Public Radio could find no independent research or analysis showing a concrete impact from the program.

Two of the five counties in New York with the highest unemployment are still found here in the North Country – Jefferson County with a 9 percent jobless rate and Hamilty County at 8.5 percent.

It’s also unclear how much job growth over the last three years has been driven by taxpayer investment and how much reflects the healthier national economy.

But while we wait for better data on how the Regional Councils are performing, it does seem clear that the process is changing the climate, the mood, in many North Country towns.

Steve Erman is president of the Adirondack North Country Association, a non-profit based in Saranac Lake that works to promote economic growth in the region.

"I think we're at a turning point in Saranac Lake, where both the Hotel Saranac and the proposed hotel on the waterfront are going to be transformational.  And that's going to cause [investors] to take a second look at Saranac Lake," Erman said.

The state labor department says there has been an overall uptick in jobs over the last year in the North C0untry region: roughly 1200 new jobs, in total, with significant growth in tourism, transportation, and even in manufacturing.

Gary Douglas, co-chair of the regional council, says he expects to see the needle move even faster as more projects like the planned expansion of Plattsburgh’s airport come on-line.

"That's why we call the new plan 'Velocity,'" he said.  "We're picking up speed."

Economic development experts say the new mood of energy and optimism is a real accomplishment.

In the months and years ahead, we’ll see if the numbers of jobs and investment dollars coming to the North Country match those high expectations.

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