Press-Republican

November 3, 2013

Franklin County looks to improve economic strategies

DENISE A. RAYMO
Press-Republican

— Forging strong relationships with regional economic-development agencies can be the key to revitalizing Franklin County’s economic picture.

There are millions of dollars in small-business loans and infrastructure funds available as well as a wealth of professional services to tap for support, and county legislators are being urged to lead the way to prosperity.

Hugh Hill, executive director of the Greater Malone Chamber of Commerce and a member of the North Country Regional Economic Development Council, urged the County Legislature to reach out now before the area’s economic realities get worse.

“We won’t cure anything shoveling money at these things,” Hill said. “It’s not about the money. It’s about the plan of how we make money.

“We’ve gotten lazy and failed to understand what we have to do. We have to use what we have for where we are.”

Franklin County ranks 61st out of New York’s 62 counties for the lowest per-capita income at $19,807 ahead of the Bronx at $17,575, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.

Essex County ranks 26th with $24,390, and Clinton County ranks 44th at $22,660.

The New York state income average is $30,948, and the United States per-capita income is $27,334.

Franklin County’s unemployment rate in August was 8.2 percent compared to 8.1 percent in Clinton County and 7.0 percent in Essex County, according to the State Department of Labor. 

The New York state unemployment rate was 7.5 percent, and the national average was 7.3 percent.

Facing statistics like those and looking at a broader view 25 years into the future means action should be taken now, Hill said.

He said the county’s population will decline 4 percent within 25 years with fewer people providing the tax dollars to keep the economy going.

The anticipated 20 percent decline in those ages 15 to 24 is also a threat since younger persons are the major revenue generators.

At the same time, he said the number of people 65 and older is expected to increase 29.6 percent in the next 25 years in the United States.

“90 million people will turn 65. Restaurants will do better because older people eat out more. The Medicare system funding will not be in good shape, and we’ll see medical services delivered in a non-traditional way," he said.

“North Country Community College has a real opportunity. There is a demographic tsunami coming and a shortage of (trained) people so that will push the wages up.”

He said the aging population will have other specialized needs that could produce jobs like wider doorways for wheelchair access and installation of new doorknobs, for example.

Hill says concentrating efforts on tourism, agriculture and energy is the best way to produce income streams that bring in money from outside the county.

“The only way to reverse these figures is to find where we stand a chance to make money,” he said. “The fastest way to generate sales tax is bed tax.”

It’s an idea that the County Legislature plans to pursue again when the new State Legislature is seated in January.

The idea is to charge overnight guests a 5 percent occupancy fee and use the money collected to promote tourism instead of using taxpayer dollars from the county budget.

He said shared services on a larger level will save money and help communities attract investment where abandoned buildings and other eyesores now discourage interest.

“We’re unable to find money to clean up and mitigate it, but it does lead to economic revival,” Hill said.

Destination and historical tourism can also bring in money from the outside, and the bed tax will help market those ideas, he added.

“And agriculture is another area to promote,” Hill said, adding that $100 million in ag products are produced in Franklin County each year by the AgriMark Cheese plant, maple-syrup producers, apple growers and companies like Big Tupper Brewing, for example.

There are obstacles to success for reaching larger markets like the lack of refrigerated warehousing, a slaughterhouse or centralized-distribution hub.

He said regional collaborations and stronger personal relationships with funding agencies and government officials would strengthen Franklin County’s future in the next 25 years and beyond.

Institutions like Paul Smith's College, North Country Community College, state Small Business Development Centers and agencies such as the Development Authority of the North Country in Watertown, the Adirondack Economic Development Corp. in Saranac Lake and CITEC Business Solutions in Potsdam all offer assistance.

Hill said there are “several million dollars available to businesses,” and he encouraged legislators to forge strong ties to these agencies to boost the economy.

He also urged them to review the Regional Economic Development Council’s plan for the North Country and find where Franklin County can have a role.

The overall plan can be viewed at: http://is.gd/QxFGDg.

Email Denise A. Raymo: draymo@press-republican.com