It was no easy task. Certainly not a slam dunk. But neither was it sheer luck that the North Country Regional Economic Development Council was awarded $103.2 million dollars, second highest amount awarded, for the Best Plan among the 10 regions vying for state support. The group headed by Tony Collins of Clarkston University and Garry Douglas of the North Country Chamber reached wide and deep throughout the region to bring together the area’s brightest talent.
But how could this small rural region without much of a prior history of working together pull off such a major victory? Only a day before the awards were handed out in Albany, I heard Garry Douglas tell a group of business representatives that the region had achieved a great victory just by coming together and creating its long term plan. Privately there must have been some glimmer of hope that the plan would be competitive but publicly no one was seen celebrating a pending or anticipated award. Not even a wink or hint that such an award was within their grasp. They were content with putting forth their best effort and with the opportunity to compete.
Making up the North Country Region are the Counties of Clinton, Lewis, Essex, Franklin, St. Lawrence, Hamilton, and Jefferson with the cities of Watertown and Plattsburgh as anchors or micropolitan hubs as defined in the plan. Few would think of this portion of the state as an integral cog in the state’s economic engine to help New York re-gain its lofty position as a global leader. With the two major interstates serving the region running north and south, I-81 and I-87, there is no common link between the two hubs. Each is better known as a gateway or corridor to other major cities within the state or Canada.
Even within the report mention is made of the area’s negative self perception and impression of depressed communities, lack of entrepreneurial spirit, sense of isolation and regional turf battles rather than cooperation on any level. Competing against the other regions, all more well defined, with a formal metropolitan center as its primary focal point, the North Country effort was uphill from day one. That may well have been its biggest advantage.
Accepting Governor Cuomo’s challenge to redesign the way the state administers its funding for growing the economy and creating jobs the North Country Regional Economic Development Council didn’t have a true starting point. There were no prior plans to dust off and put into play. The group was forced in many ways to start with a clean slate, assess its assets, be willing to accept its short comings and create a plan that not only encompassed its past but created a vision of the future rich in opportunity.
The lead paragraph in the executive summary frames the plan well…..”New York State’s economic renaissance depends as much on the vibrancy of its small cities and rural communities as it does on its large cities. The North Country Regional Economic Development Council (NCREDC) is prepared to lead a rural renaissance, leveraging its own natural and human capital with State and private investment. The region is geographically the largest in New York with a relatively low population density, making it the perfect location for investments that will result in transformational returns. With the combination of a much-sought after quality of life, a rich and abundant natural resource base and entrepreneurial and talented people, the North Country is ripe for the kind of thoughtful and targeted investment that will secure its local economies for generations and help re-establish the Empire State’s role as a global leader.”
So, for the first time in a very long time, the North Country has moved its agenda into the spotlight. The leaders, board members, committee members and staff who collaborated to bring about this new vision for our region have done their job and done it better than anyone could have possibly imagined. We all owe them a great deal of thanks for creating a road map and securing the funding. But much work is still to be done. As a united community we all need to not only get behind the plan for it to be successful but we must all embrace the plan to insure it’s a beginning and not a final destination. Future funding opportunities will be even more competitive and as a region we need to do more than talk-the-talk of economic development and job growth, we’ll need to demonstrate positive outcomes and move the plan from paper to practical application.
It’s time for us all to roll up our sleeves and get involved. Opportunity has done more than knock on the door. The door has been opened and opportunity is staring us in the face. The future now belongs to us, like it never has before.
Dan Alexander is publisher and CEO of Denton Publications. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.