Time for realignment?

Ulster County executive Pat Ryan believes “the traditional approach to economic development alone will not drive the county’s success for the future.” To that end, last month he formed a working group called Ulster 2040 of what he termed “county business movers and shakers.” That diverse twelve-person group was given nine months to come up with a plan “to align our county with our natural, economic and social strengths, and to make the necessary investments to be successful in these key areas.”

Easier said than done.

Ryan’s Facebook page announced that he had been proud to join the working group on its first convening on September 26. There had been no public notice of the meeting. A week later, a person in his office said that the members of the working group had been conducting a Doodle poll to decide the scheduling of its second session. No public notice has yet been issued about that meeting, either.

Members of the working group appointed by Ryan are Cheryl Bowers, Ashima Butler, Scott Dutton, Matt Igoe, Kale Kaposhilin, Arif Khan, Nels Leader, Chris Marx, Stacey Rein, Arnaldo Schwerert, Greer Smith and Evelyn Wright. Tim Weidemann, county  innovation director, will coordinate.

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On September 9, Ryan announced the appointment of county workforce development director Lisa Berger as the county’s new Director of Economic Development, succeeding Suzanne Holt. A few days later, the county legislature approved making Berger’s department a separate one rather than part of the planning department. Berger has experience in tourism and was once director of New Paltz’s chamber of commerce, but is less familiar with some other aspects of economic development.

Tim Weidemann, who has a planning background and got a master’s degree in public policy and management from Carnegie Mellon University, has done part of the job, too. He helped Holt with economic development-related tasks for a couple of years.

Current Ulster County comptroller candidate March Gallagher of Saugerties is the person who in recent years did more of the job than any other local person.

Gallagher, educated as an attorney and with two master’s degrees, one in public policy and the other in environmental studies, worked for four and a half years (2009 to 2013) in the county planning office and according to her LinkedIn profile “served as the main point of contact for all economic development activities in Ulster County.” She may not have received all the credit, but Gallagher did most of the whole job: following leads, locating sites, recommending sources of financing, analyzing business plans, gathering human resources, and so forth. If there was a deal to be made in Ulster County, she did her best to put it together.

Early this month, a new personality was helicoptered into the local picture of economic development. Sarah Haley, a wealth management banker with People’s United Bank who shares a Manhattan apartment part of the time and lives in Olivebridge part of the time, attended the October meeting of another county body, the Economic Development Alliance. The UCEDA’s mission is “to promote Ulster County as the premier location to expand and grow business for the creation of wealth, fostering strong, sustainable, diverse economic opportunities….” The agency supervises the handling of loan funds, and works in collaboration with partners to build infrastructure. Its major responsibility for the past several years has been to allocate the Ellenville Million, the funds former county executive Mike Hein set aside to give the southwestern Ulster County village an economic boost in 2015.

At the meeting, Weidemann updated the UCEDA about Ulster 2040, which he said was intended to provide guidance and a framework, a vision and a long-term strategy for promoting continued growth that would benefit everyone in the economy. Maybe Ulster 2040 would hire a consultant or two. He promised he would report to the EDA on a regular basis “and gather your insights.”

Except for Haley and county legislator Lynn Archer, the seven people at the table at the EDA meeting on the afternoon of October 7 were all Ryan administration jobholders, with deputy county executive Marc Rider the highest-ranking. Haley said later that she learned she was going to be elected EDA chair five minutes before the vote. Finance commissioner Burt Gulnick made the motion. It was passed unanimously.

By the next morning Haley’s LinkedIn page reflected her appointment.

Haley’s skill set adds perspective to the economic development team. Her work brings her into contact with a broader geographic perspective on economic opportunity. And she’s a great example of the kind of specialized knowledge worker Ulster County is seeking more of.

 

The executive organization of the Department of Economic Development, the Ulster 2040 working group and the UCEDA are only three fingers of the governmental hand. The county IDA and the state Empire State Development apparatus represent the remaining, more problematic fingers.

”The mission of the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency is to advance the job opportunities, general prosperity and long-term economic vitality of Ulster County residents by targeting tax incentives, bonding and other assistance to foster creation and attraction of new business and the retention and expansion of existing business.” That mission statement is read as the first order of business at all UCIDA meetings.

At the end of 2018, according to the UCIDA, the county resigned its role as the agency’s provider of administrative support and the IDA stopped paying it $4500 per month. After an aborted attempt to connect amidst acrimonious controversy on a possible role for Vinnie Cozzolino of Galileo Technology, a Kingston resident who is executive director of the Orange County IDA, the UCIDA decided as an interim measure to satisfy the requirements of state regulators itself.

Chairman Randall Leverette and vice-chair Rick Jones did a lot of pro-bono work for several months. The agency has since hired an executive director from a local accounting firm, Pattison, Koskey, Howe & Bucci

Emphasizing their agency’s statutory independence (it is an agency under the state Public Authorities law and not a county department), the UCIDA has been wary on its relationship with the organization of the county’s economic development. These matters will undoubtedly be the subject of attempted meetings of the mind in the near future.

The state government can be a great asset in the realization of local ambitions, but it can be a hindrance if local priorities are not aligned with state preferences. Continuing county conversations with Empire State Development officialdom is essential.

The 2019 progress report announced on September 25 includes 21 regional priority projects that SUNY New Paltz president and Mid-Hudson chair Donald Christian wrote “represent a broad spectrum of industry sectors and support growth in priority clusters” in the seven-county region. They were indeed varied. The requested amounts of state funding ranged from under $100,000 to $15.9 million for a $79.3-million Warwick sports facility.

Of the 21 endorsed projects, none were from Ulster County.

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