Ruthless prioritization

Pat Ryan’s let’s-get-on-with-it leadership style exudes restlessness. Ulster County government’s chief executive is impatient with undirected conversation, unclear goal-setting and slow decision-making. He wants to move the county’s economy forward now, he says (among other things). Occasional inevitable policy mistakes, he maintains, are no excuse for inaction. 

The tone is one of urgency.

Walking into an hour-and-a-half meeting of the Ulster 2040 working group at the county office building last Thursday six minutes before it was scheduled to end, Ryan spent 14 minutes listening to the concluding proceedings and thanking his appointees for their participation.

He told the group to focus on “ruthless prioritization.” “Let’s try to do less better,” he urged.

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The 37-year-old Army veteran and former business executive wants a fresh approach to economic development. He’s looking to Ulster 2040 for a strategic framework to guide the county’s efforts.

There’s no time to lose. By the time of an inaugural public meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on December 11 in the legislative chambers, the Ulster 2040 task force will already have existed for a third of its expected nine-month lifespan. Ryan told the members he preferred a 20-page report from the group rather than an 80-pager.

“The primary goal of Ulster 2040 is to align and focus the county’s economic, workforce and community development investments toward a set of targeted focus sectors,” Ryan had said in the September 12 posting announcing formation of the twelve-member group, “and to identify the necessary steps to ensure that all county residents will benefit from a growing and changing economy.“

Tim Weidemann, the county’s innovation director who is acting as process consultant and facilitator, guided Ulster 2040 through its primary task for last Thursday: “Where We Are Today.”  Weidemann utilized a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. 

A SWOT exercise was conducted a dozen years ago by an outside consultant as part of the last strategic plan for economic development, Ulster Tomorrow. Ulster County’s strengths and weaknesses have changed some since then, and the universe of opportunities and threats certainly has evolved. Though Ulster Tomorrow had counseled both the need for improvement in the cumbersome process of delivering services and a greater targeting of specific industrial clusters, it became a hodgepodge of abstract recommendation. When staff follow-up was lacking, its good intentions quickly lost momentum.

Strengths and weaknesses are internal to Ulster County. Opportunities and threats are part of the outside world. Weidemann followed the age-old technique of making lists with a Sharpie marker on large pieces of paper taped to the walls of the legislative library in which the meeting took place last Thursday.

Though the Ulster County economy has been more stagnant than not in the past decade, there are reasons for optimism. Ryan desperately wants movement. There’s a clear need for strategies that will build intelligently on the reasons for optimism.

The group looked at the downside first.

Real wages have declined in Ulster County the past decade. The cost of living in general and particularly the cost of housing has increased. “The approval process is incredibly difficult,” said architect Scott Dutton. It was an even bigger problem in the New York City watershed, added Nels Leader of Bread Alone. 

The middle class has been hollowed out, noted economist Evelyn Wright. The population is older and slightly smaller, said SUNY Ulster’s Chris Marx. Transportation issues are challenging. Infrastructure needs have increased. The size of the labor force has decreased, and more jobholders have to commute longer distances to work. Some aspects of the educational system are “problematic,” as business development expert Arnaldo Schwerert tactfully offered. More of the workforce lacks appropriate job skills, said Stacey Rein of United Way. 

On the other hand, Ulster County is as beautiful and right-scaled as ever. The overall culture is diverse and open. Quality of life remains high. In-migrants, including second-homers, are bringing their skills with them and finding the county inexpensive compared to the city living they have been used to. Access to the Big Apple is available, and places like Woodstock, Kingston, Marbletown and New Paltz are now extremely popular with city folks, some eager to become ex-city folks.

“This could be the next Boulder,” said Dutton. Participating on the phone, Rosendale-based food sales manager Matt Igoe shot back, “Have you seen Boulder recently?” 

Might the balance between maintaining Ulster County’s strengths while attending to its weaknesses prove impossible in the face of pressures toward gentrification? Won’t the things that make a place wonderful be threatened and ultimately eroded by change? It was a balancing act, the group conceded, but something that needed to be risked.

Fortunately, doing less better is not an impossible task. You create a few areas of focus. My choices are the creative industries, the digital world and an extended food and agriculture cluster. You align the county’s support sectors, including workforce development, education, infrastructure improvement, finance, and outreach and research, to concentrate on the growth of these sectors. 

Then you do the job.

Ruthless enough?

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