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Do Politics & Community Development Work?

September 18, 2012 - Ernest Hohmeyer
It has to right? Or to be effective on a local level, does community development need to be independent of politics and local government?

Political football season is in high gear. Our politicians whether it is on a national, state or local level are spewing what they will do for our economy.

And that is what we expect. Polls of what is important to Americans have put the economy high on the priority list often outweighing foreign policy or defense.

Our congressional, state and local races are beating the same drum.

I wonder though, if like the important separation of powers our forefather’s deliberated so carefully, we have blurred this concept when it comes to what we expect our elected officials to do in the world of community development.

Should or can local government effectively take the lead in community development?

Having the Right Stuff

In the economic development world of “industrial recruitment” that we as professionals were so beaten in the head about, we were trained to understand the factors important to a company in relocating. There were a set of criteria such as:

• Proximity to their customer base • Solid infrastructure • Trained labor force • Site options • Cost of doing business • Incentives • Quality of life

A Community Development “Platform”

These factors could mean very different things to various industries. And this is where the rub begins to occur between well-meaning politicians and the expertise to set the community’s campaign “platform” to successfully attract industry.

For example, a biotech company’s need for a trained labor force, infrastructure needs like clean rooms, proximity to customers, and site options are very different from an upscale hotel that desires to expand to our community. And these location criteria are again different from retail, arts and health and wellness businesses.

We have often heard that we cannot compete with Plattsburgh, Saratoga, and other larger communities who use the name “Adirondack” to solicit business. Ironically enough, these communities have a tough time competing with larger urban centers such as New York or Boston.

It is All About Scale

So think about that. If that is the case then how can the Village of Saranac Lake or the Town of Harrietstown, Tupper Lake or Lake Placid hope to compete? Even if by a miracle we work together, our year round population is minuscule, our workforce extremely limited and our infrastructure haphazard.

We Are Not Created Equal

While there our commonalities between our communities and therefore some level of competition (the Town of Harrietstown Business Park and Village of Saranac Lake vying for biotech companies) we may be more different than you think.

Let’s take a biotech for example. As a Tri-lakes region there may be some biotech firms we cannot hope to lure due to our limitations.

Those that we can should not be lumped into one category.

Some may want to be near other current companies. Others may need larger space, storage and manufacturing space. Some may prefer quiet out of the way sites to test or develop prototypes while others may prefer a walking distance to downtown. Our community or APA zoning may preclude some sites depending on the specific biotech activity. We may need a set of diverse sites to be successful.

Need to Talk Their Language

And here is one more thing: we need to be able to talk their language. We need to be able to understand their needs and what the hot buttons are to attract them here.

Is it fair to expect or politicians to know how to do all of this?

Can we expect our local politicians to be experts in biotech, tourism or health and wellness business recruitment?

Further, would not a biotech company that locates itself in Lake Clear or Saranac Lake benefit the entire region? Would a wood products firm locating in Tupper Lake help all of us?

Our Own Regional Economic Development Council?

Governor Cuomo’s Regional Economic Development Council’s, an idea similar to his father’s, are being hailed as an appropriate approach that brings together state resources to foster local needs. It is a way for the region to say “This is what WE need. We are not New York City or Buffalo, we are the North Country.”

I believe we all realize the odds are stacked against us when it comes to recruiting business to our communities. Perhaps we should form our own “Tri-lakes Regional Economic Council.” The state has already created a model to copy. We already know what we want and the priorities could be:

• Biotech • Wood Products • Tourism • Health & Wellness

Just like the Governor’s regional councils, we could have local industry groups working to recruit businesses. And just like the regional councils, they are directed by folks in the industry and politicians are in a supporting role, not the lead. After all, the regional councils have the same issue we do locally: if politicians led the charge, there may be suspicions that community development efforts would be skewed to their communities.

Marshaling Our Forces?

Can we hope to create an effective local community development effort if it is led by a village, town or county? If we truly need each other as a Tri-lakes region to even hope to wave the flag that we are viable – that together we do have a labor force, we can offer a diverse range of sites – can this be done through a village controlled local development corporation or a Malone based IDA?

Further can one community hope to marshal the expertise required to even talk the language of these diverse industries? Can one local government, village or town, which has an agenda that incorporates tourism development with biotech, retail, health and wellness and the arts, led by volunteers be effective in all areas? Again, is that local government’s function?

To be successful for just one industry effort like biotech we need to create marketing materials like community economic profiles, targeted marketing campaigns, red carpet teams and private and public teams for financing. It may require a regional team above the reproach of politics or the pressure of individual community re-elections.

A Private-Public Effort?

For example, as part of the Franklin County Occupancy Tax Committee, we are recommending that tourism be separated from “industrial development.” We believe to effectively promote and develop tourism requires a dedicated effort by people in the industry.

Further, the Legislature should be in a support role. Otherwise we believe we run into the same problems of expecting our legislators to be expert industry recruiter’s amidst the fear that they will be only supporting their own community. Plus, as one legislator said, “You cannot have a consistent tourism program or message based on elected officials coming or going.”

We as local residents may need to take a hard look at our own expectations of what we really want our politicians to do. Our local politicians may in turn need to ponder if one government by itself can effectively lead community development.

Perhaps there is a regional model right in our face that we can emulate. Perhaps it is time to consider a private industry led with government playing a supporting role: our own Tri-lakes Economic Council.


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