Judging from the number of self-accolades being passed around, the news is big for Ticonderoga’s economic development front. A regional meat packing slaughterhouse is coming to town. I gather this may, already, be a “done deal” or close to; but it should never be too late to ask the right questions and draw the requisite lessons – especially, where the community’s ability to protect its revitalization investment priorities may have been placed at undue risk.
One has to start by asking — could this ever be a good thing for the cause of economic advancement, where poor are pitted against poor (this time, neatly contained in the greater Adirondack Park/ North Country community) — to win a contract that hardly anyone, rich or poor, would want as their first choice in the first place — if, only, one could afford to refuse it? (On the subject of affordability, think — Botswana prevailing over its equally poor neighbors for the privilege of storing nuclear wastes in precious country soil.)
Never mind a long term planning initiative completed twice by the town and twice adopted by the Ticonderoga Revitalization Alliance, calling for an environmentally sensitive and attractive place, suitable for destination tourism with an emphasis on outdoor recreational pursuits, indoor and outdoor pursuit of the arts, business incubation and entrepreneurial/ educational links, regional hub for various big and small box retailers. Never mind the incredible array of assets this little town of under 5000 has to offer in any potential self-makeover — i.e., a top rated, local college system, our incredible fort (“America’s Fort), an unparalleled location of historical, environmental, recreational and regional economic importance, a substantial prospective volunteer corps (as we have seen in connection with the early activities of the Alliance). Never mind a 40 percent vacancy/ under-utilization rate in its principle, downtown and four corners real estate, ready to lend itself to a broad, public/ private re-development initiative.
Tell us once more, please, what a slaughterhouse has to do with any of the priorities and extraordinary gifts with which Ticonderoga has been so richly blessed? Are we implicitly changing our town economic development standards and priorities, let alone risks of accomplishment as currently set forth in town and alliance plans? Or are our leaders demanding appropriate protections? What, exactly, is the price to be paid; and who’s paying. What is the anticipated number of new jobs, recruited locally and earning a living wage? Are there any exceptions relating to zoning, site beautification, prevailing wind/ smell, special infrastructure investment requirements, anticipated tax advantages that either side is or should be asking for?
There are two sets of issues in this proposed slaughterhouse deal. One has to do with the ultimate merits of the deal and “investment” costs and presumed returns to the Town and its partners. The other concerns the ability of our leaders to avoid budget cutting any current expenses (trans., jobs) or any expected tax revenues (trans., more jobs).
Almost half of America (that is eligible to work) either has chosen not to work or else is gainfully employed at $10 or less per hour. One of every four Americans is working poor. Almost one out of every three — 100 million Americans — are on one or another dole at any one time. In this age of uncertainty, however, who can trust anything he is told? One thing in life is a sure bet, however. Whatever the numbers are for America, they are going to be worse for Ticonderoga.
One implication of these numbers is that the economic trends are working against us. If ever there was a time to have a professional economic development team on the ground, this is it. If ever there was a time to protect the vision and be diligent in avoiding consequences of investing in the wrong deal, this would be that moment.
Town leaders are geared to function from the heart (if not political fear) and will be reluctant to cut any jobs. Many friends and neighbors voted for them to protect the unspoken covenant to deploy local government as the employer of last resort. A two percent carve-out would be enough to assure a real economic development initiative, but would cost the Town some number of operating jobs to attain. With 2 percent set-aside for the future (think, our children), that leaves 98 percent to manage through today.
What we know about creating jobs is that you’ve got to be willing to invest long-term dollars (think, 10-20 years) to create a sufficiently safe place, complete with storied opportunity, that will attract the right capital, ideas, investors, job-seeking families. What I know about 10-20 years is that they are here and gone tomorrow.
Having shown some heart, it is, now, essential that our leaders demonstrate equal amounts of courage and perspicacity to match their heartfelt instincts to duck for cover. A failure of the town to fund the long-term operating core economic development team will result, like earlier half efforts, in failing to respond to the great challenge of their day and to seize the other opportunities that might have been.
Alex Levitch is chairman emeritus of the Ticonderoga Revitalization Alliance.