After more than 90 days in office, Ulster County executive Pat Ryan has finally laid some of his cards on the table in regard to economic development. On Monday, September 9, he appointed Lisa Berger, director of the county’s federally funded employment and training office for the past five years, to be his director of economic development, a position that the county legislature is likely to separate this week from the planning department. And on that Thursday afternoon he announced formation of a twelve-person advisory working group called Ulster 2040 whose task it will be to evaluate the county’s resources and to position Ulster County to participate successfully in the economy of the future.
“Ulster 2040 is about our mission to align our county with our natural economic and social strengths, and to make the necessary investments to be successful in these key areas,” said Ryan in his press release. “The traditional approach to economic development alone will not drive the county’s success for the future.”
Other notables, including Lisa Berger, chimed in with their support. Berger said in the same press release that she was looking forward to working with the Ulster 2040 group to create a priority-driven action plan for her Office of Economic Development. The Ulster 2040 process will be facilitated by Tim Weidemann, the sole present employee of the county’s newly minted Department of Innovation.
The members of the working group will include Cheryl Bowers of Rondout Saving Bank, Ashima Butler of the Ellenville Regional Hospital, Kingston architect Scott Dutton, Rondout Valley farm entrepreneur Matt Igoe, Kingston digital creator Kale Kaposhilin, consultant, community organizer, restaurateur and Gardiner resident Arif Khan, Lake Katrine Bread Alone executive Nels Leader, SUNY Ulster workforce development executive Chris Marx, local United Way president Stacey Rein, veteran business executive and management expert Arnaldo Schwerert, arts and culture service provider and Transart founder Greer Smith, and Evelyn Wright, economist, consultant and founder of the non-profit Commonwealth Hudson Valley.
Growing and diversifying the county economy has been perhaps the most complex of Pat Ryan’s Big Five priority initiatives. The other four are a Green New Deal, the opioid crisis, redefining the justice system to emphasize rehabilitative and restorative elements, and making county government more responsive and responsible.
Ryan sees large parts of the American electorate, both nationally and locally, as estranged from their governments. Two outcomes are possible, he believes. The disaffected might blow the political system up. Or they might be re-engaged into it.
He had promised prior to election to do his part to pursue the latter path in Ulster County. To that end, he scheduled public meetings in every one of the 20 towns and the county’s single city. “This is your government and I want to make it accessible to you,” he had said on his swearing-in 95 days earlier.
As of last Thursday afternoon, September 12, the county executive had been at 13 local community sessions. The fourteenth was scheduled that evening for Gardiner, his home town. He expressed the hope that his wife Rebecca and his son Theo, 47 days old, would attend.
The meetings have provided an opportunity for the neophyte county politico and his constituents an opportunity to get to know each other a lot better. Ryan found, he told me, that a lot of Ulster County people “are desperate to feel heard and to take action to help.”
The community sessions thus far have been informal, with a lot of give-and-take. Ryan likes to ask his listeners questions as well as to answer them. In his replies, he has a habit of agreeing with his questioners about something they said — certainly flattering to those who might feel estranged.
At every meeting so far, he told me at his office on Thursday, someone had wanted to discuss economic development. People are concerned about jobs and income. “Economic growth that helps all our residents is a key priority of mine,” said Ryan in his Ulster 2040 press release.
The members of the working group are not the same people as those Ryan listed as his community advisors during his campaign. There’s little overlap between the two groups. The new group has no political officeholders. About half its members are on the youngish side, and several harbor entrepreneurial ambitions.
Ryan borrowed a yellow piece of lined paper and drew a rough matrix on it. One dimension represented the handful of categories the working group was being tasked to come up with. The other was time, marking the steps by which the goals of each task would be defined and accomplished.
Ryan doesn’t have all the answers. He doesn’t claim to. He seems to have the instinct that a turnaround in equitable economic development encompassing community development and workforce development as well is both necessary and possible. He thinks the county government has a leadership role to play. He wanted to get the ball rolling by hiring Berger and by initiating the Ulster 2040 process.
How important to him is an economic kickstart? Ryan currently has two deputy county executives, Marc Rider in charge of operations and John Milgrim in charge of strategy. There’s an unfilled line position in the county budget for a third deputy. Ryan brings up the possibility of the third deputy position being filled by someone in charge of the development functions? He says he’s not sure. “I could see that,” he said.
Urban economist Enrico Moretti posited seven years ago in The New Geography of Jobs that geography substantially determined economic vitality. Metropolitan areas with high education levels and some technological capabilities were highly advantaged when it came to economic development, the Berkeley scholar wrote. But individual firms across an increasing number of industries were becoming more fluid and footloose. Regions close to the largest urban agglomerations deemed overpriced or lacking in lifestyle amenities could face fierce competition from more distant regions with lower costs of living.
Ryan and Weidemann have not yet convened the members of the Ulster 2040 working group. Stay tuned.