By R.J. DELUKE
Improving the economy of a community touches individual lives. It brings jobs. It brings in new people and families that spend money. It brings companies that spend money.
Those dollars are spent at store and shops, restaurants and via business-to-business relationships that turn the economic wheel and generate incomes vital to people’s lives.
A great deal of time is spent by professionals to enhance development by bringing in new businesses and new jobs. Those groups–development agencies, business and professional associations, chambers of commerce–also help existing businesses stay afloat, expand and thrive.
Professionals in the field, like Marty Vanags president of the Saratoga County Prosperity Partnership, know their work is never done.
Even large successes, like landing the international microchip manufacturer GlobalFoundries, doesn’t mean a community lives happily ever after.
“We’re always working on projects. We’re always working on opportunities,” said Vanags. “A mistake that many economic development groups around the country make is they get one big project and think they’re done.
Economic development groups can’t rest on their laurels. “You have to constantly push the ball forward,” he said, using a basketball analogy. “Be happy about our wins, but try to score as often as we can and use every opportunity to do that.”
A company like GlobalFoundries, he said, “means more work and opportunity to do more things … There’s a great opportunity we have here to excel.”
His organization is relatively new. It was created by the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors some two years ago and funded by the county. The main group before that was the Saratoga Economic Development Corp. (SEDC), a private sector, nonprofit group established in 1978, that works to retain existing businesses and create new jobs.
SEDC is still carrying out its mission.
SEDC “is seeing an increase in phone calls” from businesses interested in Saratoga County, said Dennis Brobston, the agency’s president.
He said his staff has been talking with companies that are already in the county and those that are interested in coming in.
“Most of them need to be in the Northeast for some of the markets they are serving,” he said.
He said SEDC continues to refer businesses to SCORE, a network of business people who act as mentors, providing such things as practical action plans, education and other tools needed for starting or expanding.
“If they didn’t have a business plan” when approaching SEDC, “we try to make sure they have them in place,” Brobston said.
“We need more product,” he said. “We need more sites to be approved” that are suitable for companies to utilize. He said existing sites are full and even some under construction are spoken for and will be full when completed.
“We need communities to be more business friendly. We need to get through the approval process more quickly” to successfully woo new businesses, he said.
Brobston said Empire State Development, the main economic development arm of the state, has done a good job of providing clients.
“We’ve had a few site visits in the last month,” he said, adding that “the state has done a good job” referring businesses to Saratoga County.
One issue SEDC sees as a challenge is the need for more natural gas service, which some manufacturers are looking for. Another is road infrastructure, including reconstruction of the bridge at Northway Exit 16, the funds for which were promised by the state some years ago.
“Work force development needs to be ramped up,” Brobston added. Some companies are having difficulty getting qualified employees. One example, he said is SCA Tissue North America, which he said has been trying to find electrical and mechanical engineers and has had to bring them in from Eastern Europe.
But businesses continue to be interested in Saratoga County, said Brobston, and SEDC’s is ongoing. Existing businesses and luring new business are tasks that don’t subside, and so far this year things have been very busy.
“There are a lot of things this county possesses that make it an easy sell,” said Vanags. He compared it to the effort that brought him here.
“The people that hired me in Saratoga County didn’t have to sell me very hard” because of the location, the quality of the city of Saratoga Springs and county and “the very successful businesses that are doing well.”
Vanags said it is the charge of his office to “get out there and sell that story.” In doing so, the agency has identified five industry sectors to address, based on a study done in 2014. Those are agriculture and food-related businesses, advanced manufacturing, back office and processing (for example, the State Farm claims office off Northway Exit 12), research and development, and warehousing and distribution.
Those are based on what kind of population and education is in the area, types of existing businesses, and like nearness to major transportation routes.
When it comes to attracting companies there is rarely instant gratification. It’s a continuing process and takes commitment and persistence, also patience.
“It’s a sales cycle–like selling a widget or a product. You go out and tell them why they have to buy it. The product is our community. … They may not buy it on the first try. They may not buy it on the second try. It takes a long time to execute a project,” said Vanags.
“The person I’m talking to tomorrow, they might not make a decision to move here for another year.”
Meanwhile, clients require confidentiality when making major business decisions like relocating or opening new operations. So an agency’s efforts can go unseen for much of the time.
Another very important part of the job is business retention and expansion.
Vanags said existing businesses “are the foundation for everything. They’re the basis for attracting new businesses here. We have to make sure we know what they need … We’re making a concerted effort on that.”
Having successful existing businesses helps spawn new ones.
Vanags noted the strength of the existing community was one of the factors that led GlobalFoundries to make a decision to build a $15 billion facility in Malta. But its more than the foundry and the jobs.
“That generates a lot of energy around education and research,” he said.
Indeed, for example, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and GlobalFoundries just announced plans to establish an Advanced Patterning and Productivity Center (APPC) at the Colleges of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (CNSE) in Albany. The $500 million, five-year program will accelerate the introduction of extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography technologies into manufacturing used in Malta. Officials said the center is anchored by a network of international chipmakers and material and equipment suppliers, including IBM and Tokyo Electron, and will generate 100 jobs.
Saratoga Race Course, said Vanags, is another example. It spawned horse farms with its own work force. Feed and caring for the horses is more business, not to mention the sales tax generated and the tourism upon which so many businesses rely.
“These are great building blocks for people to use,” said Vanags.
Working in concert with other groups is important as well. Vanags said his agency has not yet had dealings with SEDC, but “we will work collaboratively with everyone and anyone.”
Brobston said he speaks with Vanags, but entreaties for cooperation have been turned down by county officials. “That’s their choice,” he noted. SEDC remains open to collaboration, but moves forward, busy dealing with some 60 clients.
Vanags said it’s important to be in step with state and federal agencies and other economic development groups “public and private.” Also groups like the business and professional associations in Malta and Ballston Spa.
“It’s all hands on deck,” to help the economy grow. “We’re carrying forth an effort to work with anyone. It’s a team sport. You cannot do it yourself.”
“There are a lot of people who work hard every day to grow their community. We’re working hard to be part of their world and help them as much as possible.”
Deanna Derway, president and executive director of the Washington County Local Development Corp., said she has seen excellent progress in neighboring Washington County.
Her agency was formed 31 years ago by a Community Development Block Grant. The agency took that money and issued loans over the years to companies looking to start or expand. When that money is repaid, with interest, the money is turned over and is re-used for other loans and projects.
Derway said 2014 and 2015 were outstanding, and the first three months of 2016 is already looking good. Last year was the best year for WCLDC, with the agency reviewing 14 loan applications, approving nine of them for more than $1 million.
So far this year, five loan applications are under review.
She said in order to be eligible for WCLDC loans, a business must first have been turned down by a conventional bank.
The challenges faced by her agency include taking a good hard look at the applications to help ensure that a project gets to fruition so WCLDC doesn’t have to write off a bad loan.
Counties like Warren and Saratoga are known for bigger development projects, but Derway said because of the small-town, rural nature of Washington County “it’s very interesting, the types of ideas and projects that come through our office.”
She noted that Whitehall had some business closings over the last year or so, but that Greenwich is showing continued growth.
“We’re a stable county,” said Laura Oswald, economic development director for Washington County. “We’re not seeing tremendous changes in terms of new projects,” but there are no huge losses, aside from General Electric closing shop. Even that, she noted, was known about for a long time so people were able to adapt.
One of the key issues she views is the expansion of broadband internet access. She has been working with state officials to get funding for improvements in that realm. That will have a huge positive impact for existing business and business recruitment.
“Most people tend to think of economic development as the GlobalFoundries of the world,” said Oswald. But the reality is more small projects and small successes.
“It takes significant outreach and effort” to get economic development results, she said.