June 23, 2013

Support needed for entrepreneurs

Paul Grasso Just Sayin'

---- — Last week marked the first anniversary of my tenure as president & CEO of The Development Corporation (TDC). We celebrated with a cake and florets of broccoli — it’s a long story.

It’s been an interesting and productive year, at least it has been from my perspective.

Clinton County is a dynamic and extraordinary mix of cultural, geographic and economic assets. However, it’s not without challenges, including low (and getting lower) population densities and a remoteness which brings with it diseconomies of scale and sometimes an increased cost of doing business.

A discouraging public policy context in which federal, state, county and local governments are facing severe fiscal challenges complicates the situation. It’s further complicated by an environment in Washington where there is no organized constituency for rural America (other than the members of Congress representing rural communities, and in Bill Owens, we have one of the best.)

In that context, it becomes understandable why many rural communities across the country suffered longer and to a greater degree than did urban areas during the Great Recession, but not so much in Clinton County, where we’ve fared better than most.

The unemployment rate is higher than we want it to be, but local businesses seem to be doing better as indicated by the North Country Chamber of Commerce’s business survey in which the vast majority of businesses expressed optimism about the future.

The region is doing well in attracting new businesses and retaining existing businesses, and local political and business leaders have not let the negativity of the “crisis du jour” coming out of Washington immobilize them. For the past five years, they’ve stepped up to define the future they want for the region.

And they’ve done it by creating a vision, by being innovative and by taking risks.

It’s a classic entrepreneurial approach to economic development, which brings me to the point of this column.

The traditional approaches to economic development are working well in the region. Now may be the right time to consider an additional approach to economic development — entrepreneurship.

Think of entrepreneurship as one leg of the three-legged stool that is a healthy regional economy. The first leg is “business attraction,” or persuading new companies to locate in the region. The second leg is “business retention and expansion,” or looking after what is already here. The third leg is “entrepreneurship,” or growing your own jobs and creating wealth.

SUNY Plattsburgh has a wonderful program in entrepreneurship. Their goal is to increase the number of better informed and better skilled entrepreneurs entering the pipeline. Local government and businesses would be wise to support a program that will help create a culture of entrepreneurship.

Why is creating a culture of entrepreneurship important?

Entrepreneurship is important for a variety of reasons. For me, the most important is that entrepreneurs create wealth, not just wages. When an entrepreneur is successful, the wealth they create stays in the community. This is different from job creation, which brings wages to a community but does not necessarily keep the wealth they create in the community.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not knocking job creation. I’m just sayin’ that it differs from wealth creation.

Another benefit of entrepreneurship is that it not only keeps wealth in the community, it can also keep talent in the community. The key word is “can.” Unfortunately, other states with lower taxes lure 75 percent of New York’s technology startups away within their first year of business. Hence, the governor’s “Tax Free New York” proposal.

So, what can we do locally to foster a culture of entrepreneurship?

A culture of entrepreneurship can only take root and thrive as a rural economic development strategy if the proper nurturing environment exists. At a minimum, we need to create an environment that will facilitate the creation of a pipeline of entrepreneurs who have access to high-quality business development services, including a reasonable tax structure and access to affordable health care for entrepreneurial businesses with or without employees.

Finally, we need to institutionalize entrepreneurship education in the K-12 school system. Why isn’t there an active Junior Achievement program in our schools?

Entrepreneurship is a vital rural economic development strategy that will help develop innovations, create jobs and contribute to a vibrant regionally economy.

Paul Grasso is the president and CEO of The Development Corporation, Clinton County, New York.