Seeking a turnaround

photo by Sonny Abesamis

Two friends meet and one asks the other: “How are you?” The other says: “My life is all stripes — black stripes followed by white ones.”

“So which one is it now?” “Now I’m in the black one.”

Another six months pass, they meet again: “How’s life? I know it’s all stripes, but which one is it now?” “It’s black now.”

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“But it was black last time!” “Looks like it was white last time.”

— Transcript of ‘old joke’

told by Vladimir Putin, December 17

When he describes Ulster County as being “at a critical juncture in the transition of its economy,” Peter Fairweather is not exaggerating. But this “critical juncture” is nothing new. In the 25 years since IBM closed its Kingston plant, that’s unfortunately where the local economy has been. Something needs to be done. Very little has been done in a long time, and many people question Ulster County’s capacity to do anything.

The New Paltz planner and consultant detects the outlines of a new economic base that may have begin to emerge in the past decade or so. What are those specialized niches? What does he think should be Ulster County’s target industries for growth?

Economic advice is admittedly a perilous game. As many experts turn out to miss their targets as hit them. To his credit, Fairweather is willing to play the advice game. In his almost yearlong study for the county-government-led Economic Development Alliance, he conducted an analysis that identified industries, some existing and some emerging, which could through the sale of their goods and services import money into Ulster County. Successful local businesses that sell locally to locals were not what he was concentrating his work on.

Fairweather’s extensive analysis recommended that Ulster County pursue opportunities in five priority industrial categories: advanced manufacturing, agriculture and food production, arts production, hospitality and tourism, and digital design and technology. He saw synergies between these target industries and recommends networking events to strengthen collaboration among them.

There are no surprises in his common-sense list of industries. What approaches did he recommend to grow them in Ulster County?

As it should be, the most important focus was geographical: attract firms currently serving markets in and around the New York City metropolitan area. Ulster County costs, though higher than those in most of the country, are a lot lower than they are in New York City. “If firms active in that market require a lower cost structure to compete,” Fairweather wrote diplomatically, “it is better for all concerned if such firms can find a location that improves their competitiveness and keeps them in New York State.” Dual homeowners in particular, he said, “may be predisposed to consider Ulster County for this reason.”

Rather than launching its own marketing campaigns, Fairweather suggested Ulster County might be better off partnering with state and regional groups already engaged in attraction efforts. He thought regular county visits to firms in target industries and attendance at trade shows would be a wise strategy. His report also stressed the importance of nimble and responsive workforce development. And he came out in favor of subsidies to target industries (another area where the state government can do the heavy lifting). Finally, he suggested each Ulster County community should focus on industries that played to its own strengths.

These are all sensible recommendations.

 

What has Ulster County accomplished in terms of economic development since IBM vacated its Ulster plant 25 years ago? Very little. That new pattern which “may have begun to emerge in the past decade or so” has been emerging at a glacial pace.

Though there may be green shoots here and there, there hasn’t been overall improvement to the local economic picture. Employment in the 180,000-person county has increased at less than one job per week over the past quarter-century. Given the economic potential of the county, that result doesn’t cut it.

A large proportion of what few new local jobs have been created in the past generation, moreover, has been in low-paying industries. Meanwhile, the number of jobholders who must commute to work outside the county has continues to grow steadily.

What is to be done?

To grow target industries — companies in similar or complementary industries — the county may need inducements, which Fairweather suggests should be unique to each industrial category. Some specialized manufacturers might require shovel-ready sites, for instance, while others would benefit from the supportive presence of specialized technologies like 3-D printing at SUNY New Paltz. Agriculture would benefit from more packing capacity, and its workers might need English language training. Arts production needs to be organized and to have opportunities for exposure to available technology. Tourism destinations need to be spruced up, and linkages between them pursued.

 

Of specific initiatives Fairweather recommends, the ones to support digital design and technology are the most clearly articulated. This industry is built for linkages and connections.

In his targeting analysis seeking to build this industry, the consultant suggests strengthening of the Kingston area as its nexus through five initiatives:

  • Improving broadband access in key locations in Kingston.
  • Creating inexpensive collaborative workspaces.
  • Continue networking events to attract techpreneurs to Ulster County.
  • Cultivate relationships with venture capital and seed funds.
  • In conjunction with SUNY Ulster, promote code academies and other non-credit credentialing programs.

If this sector plan were pursued, it would constitute the most ambitious coordination of economic development attempted by Ulster County in many years. Is it a sufficient response to the “critical juncture” in the county’s economic transition? No, but it is better than nothing. It would at least be an honest start.

Is county government capable of leading such an effort? Your guess is as good as mine.

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