On the last afternoon of November eight people sat at the conference table in Ulster County Legislature Chairman Ken Ronk’s office on the sixth floor of the County Office Building on Fair Street in Kingston. The subject of discussion was a March 16 Democratic legislative resolution to reauthorize an update of the countywide economic development strategy Ulster Tomorrow, adopted after long deliberation and discussion a decade ago. The resolution had been referred to a subcommittee headed by Republican Legislator Jim Maloney, chair of the legislative committee responsible for economic development (as well as tourism, housing, planning and transit). This was the subcommittee’s third meeting, and it appears it won’t be the last.
Maloney sat at the head of the table and chaired the meeting. He was flanked to his right by Suzanne Holt, director of the county’s Office of Economic Development, and to his left by Deputy County Executive Ken Crannell. Next to Crannell was legislature Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez and next to Rodriguez, Kingston Legislator Jennifer Schwartz Berky. Next to Holt on the other side were New Paltz Legislator Jim Delaune and a reporter (moi) taking notes. At the foot of the table facing Maloney was County Planning Director Dennis Doyle.
The county economy has shifted dramatically in the past decade. The skills, education and composition of the work force have changed and continue to change.
A new crop of young people is migrating to larger cities, particularly New York City, and another more seasoned crop emigrating from it. “Over the next four decades, New York City might need as much as a billion square feet of new housing, office, retail and other space,” predicts the Regional Plan Association. “This much new development will require creativity, careful planning and an approach that spurs economic prosperity while fostering a more livable urban environment.”
Tourism in Ulster County is both growing and changing in character; the surge in new types of lodging was unanticipated by Ulster Tomorrow. The document foresaw in a vague way the continued growth of what it called the creative economy, but didn’t do justice to the opportunities the rapid development of the digital revolution into various industries would create for the region. On the other hand, it may have exaggerated what could be expected in the near term from agriculture, renewable energy and green technologies.
These real-world trends should all hold a prominent position in any update of Ulster Tomorrow. But how the nature of work has changed — and what that change may mean for Ulster County — is perhaps the most profound economic trend in the past decade. It completely escaped the Ulster Tomorrow net.
A brief discussion near the beginning of the meeting of the increase in the state tax credit for the film industry mentioned the plans of the much-heralded partnership between the film production company Stockade Works and the affordable housing developer RUPCO to occupy the cavernous former Met Life building on Greenkill Avenue. There may be space there for related small businesses. These enterprises may want to use varied shared services such as web designers, accountants and housekeepers (“more a toolshed than an incubator”). These services, “a different kind of infrastructure,” were a characteristic of the “gig economy,” an economy composed of people who work other than regular full-time jobs.
Hector Rodriguez said that he didn’t know what that term meant. He knew the word “gig,” of course, but he had never heard it applied to the economy.
That term doesn’t appear in Ulster Tomorrow. Before the worldwide economy began to slide into the Great Depression, the transformation of the workplace implied by the gig economy was much less evolved.
“Traditional nine-to-five jobs are becoming less common, and people are increasingly employed in less traditional work arrangements,” New York Federal Reserve president William Dudley told a New York City conference called The Evolution of Work on Nov. 17. “Measuring the creation and destruction of these new jobs is of utmost importance to gain a better assessment of the labor market. We also need to understand how this evolution is affecting job security and earnings stability. While these jobs might provide workers with more flexibility, they might also come with increased income volatility and financial vulnerability.”
Fed governor Lael Brainard elaborated: “A large and growing proportion of the workforce is working through contracting, temporary arrangements, on-call arrangements, or as freelancers being hired for episodic ‘gigs.’” All the growth in the aggregate employment in the last decade — the decade since Ulster Tomorrow — can be accounted for by contingent work arrangements, “which means there has been no net employment growth in traditional work arrangements,” Brainard concluded.
Several national surveys have placed the current proportion of contingent workers at 35 percent of the total labor force. The significant implications of the gig economy appear here to stay. For Ulster County, ignoring their effects on the local economy will mean missed opportunities.
There seems little groundswell for a full-blown, elaborate, community-involved process of the kind that Ulster Tomorrow brought to Ulster County. “Is that plan still relevant?” asked Maloney. “Suzanne and Ken say they’re busy. Is that plan still relevant for this world?”
The furthest Holt, who made it clear that she and her staff were very, very busy, would go was to say she’d attend periodic committee meetings. “If you invite me, I will come,” she said. And Crannell assured the group that “a lot of great activity is taking place.”
Delaune attempted a nifty bit of translation between Holt and Schwartz Berky. “You say you are helping actual businesses,” he said to Holt, and turning to Schwartz Berky, “and you’re saying you don’t know what’s going on.” There was something flawed in the culture “about how we work,” he suggested.
Does this impasse provide sufficient attention to an economy that is changing so fundamentally? Doesn’t the workforce of Ulster County deserve a little more from the county’s constipated political leadership?
Though something modest may be sufficient in an Ulster Tomorrow update, nothing is happening right now. Political impasse does not seem a constructive strategy.
There’s should be room for more participative and more collegial relationships between governmental branches. In principle, the legislators’ call for their body’s status as “a collaborative partner” in such an update does not seem out of line, though how to do it was the subject of acrimonious debate among the seven participants around Ken Ronk’s table.
“We want a closer relationship with you,” said Delaune.