Coming together at my table for this year’s Strictly Business Forum were: Bill Owens, former Congressman recently returned to Plattsburgh to practice law at Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley, PLLC. Owens has been involved with the economic development of the region for over 30 years and specializes in the practice of U.S./Canada business law.
Pat Leary, owner, PM Leary. After finding himself suddenly out of work, Leary decided to take matters into his own hands in 2010. He took a gamble and started Roto Rooter with one part time employee and a van. In five years Leary has expanded his enterprise to include the related services of restoration, septic, dry cleaning, and most recently, sprinkler systems.
Michael Cashman, Supervisor-elect, Town of Plattsburgh.
Cashman arrived in Plattsburgh as an undergraduate student from Massachusetts 16 years ago. He found purpose volunteering with the United Way, helped found the Adirondack Young Professionals group and promoted community service in his work with college students. After serving on the Town Council, Cashman was recently elected to fill the Supervisor’s position, which he assumed in January. Cashman is the youngest person to be elected Town Supervisor.
Dan Badger, co-owner and brewer, AuSable Brewing Company.
Dan and his younger brother Dylan realized a longtime dream come true when they opened their own brewery in Keeseville late in 2014. In a short time the brewery has been open, the brothers have put Keeseville on the map as a destination for great beer and a fun place to spend an evening with friends.
Leigh Mundy, past Board Chair for the Strand Theater restoration project. Mundy has been the driving force behind a colossal community effort to raise funds and complete the historic restoration of a Plattsburgh landmark. She has woven her talents in real estate, restoration and marketing together to produce an amazing gift for the community to enjoy.
Betsy Vicencio, vice president /CFO, The Northeast Group. Vicencio is a fierce advocate for the region, promoting business in the area through her work to support companies that bring their products into the U.S. for distribution. In addition to warehousing and distri- bution, The Northeast Group publishes Strictly Business magazine, the premier business advocacy vehicle of the North Country, and offers printing and mailing services.
Jason Martin, general manager, Nova Bus. Martin came to the area a year and a half ago, after a 16 year career in large equipment manufacturing. Most recently from Iowa, Martin has also lived in Wisconsin, Australia, Saskatchewan, Iowa, and Michigan.
Nikki Mars, president/CEO, Mars Mechanical. Mars started her first business when she was 18 years old. In 2008 she launched Mars Mechanical with her husband, who brought a strong background in HVAC. With little more than $10,000 and a van at the start, today the company has expanded to fill 15,000 square feet of commercial space and has hired numerous employees.
As we reflected on business in 2015 themes around the table included a healthy respect for the influence of Canadian commerce in our region, concern over the readiness of the workforce, changing leadership, and general growth and expansion across most industries.
Our Northern Neighbor, Canada
Canadian companies continue to look for U.S. partners to help them with local, national and global commerce. The law firm of Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher & Trombley has been watching and encouraging this trend for over 30 years. “What they are doing is using professionals in Plattsburgh, because we are an hour away from them. It doesn’t matter if they are doing a transaction in Alabama or any- where in the United States,” explained Bill Owens. The firm has also noted overall growth in Canadian business activity locally.
Jason Martin, of Canadian firm Nova Bus, acknowledged the influence of the Buy America Act on this trend. He explained that the act requires manufactured goods to contain a specified percentage of American made materials in order for the transaction to qualify for federal fund- ing. “The reason why Nova Bus produces in the U.S. is directly related to the Buy America Act,” he commented.
Owens and Martin explained that the recently announced federal highway bill includes a provision to increase the percentage of U.S. content from 60% to 70%. “70% will be extremely challenging for Nova Bus to achieve,” Martin observed. “There have been a lot of transit companies who have pulled out of the US. 70% U.S. content makes it difficult for international companies to do business here.”
Betsy Vicencio was quick to point out that the Buy America Act, and any required increase in U.S. content, is good for The Northeast Group and for local businesses in general. “When it rains, it pours,” Vicencio commented, “There is not a day that goes by that we are not fielding calls from Canadian companies who want to do business here.” Owens added, “There are a lot of vendors coming in to this area to help companies like Nova Bus meet these requirements. When there is $45 billion (in federal highway funds) on the table, people will find a way to make it work.”
The influence of new leadership and a changing of the guard caught the attention of several participants during the past year. At the Strand Theater, Leigh Mundy and her Board of Directors concluded a national search for an Executive Director in 2015. This decision brought about a sudden and surprise ending. “We hired someone with an M.B.A. who looked great on paper,” she recalled, “We brought her to Plattsburgh and found out very quickly that it was not a good fit.” Fortunately for Mundy, and also emblematic of the spirit of North Country resilience, the Board had to look no further than its own backyard to fill the role. “There was Joshua Kretser, this amazing young man who was already involved with us,” Mundy explained. Kretser has been Executive Director of the Strand Theater since April.
The retirement of former Plattsburgh Town Supervisor Bernie Bassett opened the door for former undergraduate student turned local politician Michael Cashman, who will assume that post in a few weeks. “One of the reasons I was willing to get in this game is because Mayor Jim Calnon really sees a partnership between the Town and City of Plattsburgh,” he shared, “Collaboration is our strength right now, and it is what we need to make this work.”
Growth & Expansion
During 2015 The AuSable Brewing Company in Keeseville blossomed from a little-known brewery into a destination offering craft brewed beer, live music and local food truck options. Co-owner Dan Badger called 2015 a “best case scenario.” In fact, the company is left with the enviable problem of keeping up with demand. “We saw crowds way bigger than we were expecting,” Badger explained, “We had to make the decision to stop selling growlers (for take-out) so that we could keep beer on tap in house.” Badger and his brother/co- owner Dylan strategically decided to stay out of the business of mass production for distribution so that they could keep their focus on craft brewing great beer rather than managing a large production facility.
Both Nova Bus and PM Leary Restoration closed 2015 with positive gains. Leary remarked that unlike previous years, business has been consistent month over month, and there are plenty of opportunities to bid on new work. “I talk with all my competitors and the general consensus is that we are all busy,” he added. Leary added health insurance coverage for his employees this year, which he described as a “feel-good” challenge for his business.
Martin explained that Nova Bus will have doubled its production by the end of the first quarter of 2016. A drive by the plant reveals evidence of expansion. “We are building a customer showroom,” he described. “We are dealing with some of the largest transportation authorities in the U.S. We deliver 100% of their buses and we want to do that in a more upscale, nicer environment than we do now.”
Encouraging Trades Skills Training, Workforce
Maintaining a qualified workforce that meets the changing needs of businesses is a challenge for any community. Nikki Mars of Mars Mechanical is on the front lines of that struggle. “I cannot find a skilled technician,” Mars explained, “This is a very well paid career and we are dying for people to work here.” Mars has gone as far as pursuing local educational institutions for partnerships and even offered to donate large machinery to expose students to training opportunities. “I am also a mentor for the program,” she concluded. Leary agreed. “There isn’t enough schooling for trades locally. Some of the problem starts at the elementary level, where kids are discouraged from going into trades when they talk about what career is right for them.” There was much agreement around the table as the conversation turned to the societal stigma that surrounds students who decide not to go on to college.
The prevailing viewpoint was that by and large, guidance counselors in schools and parents seem to share the belief that every student should be directed to college. Vicencio agreed, “There are excellent vocational preparation programs at Beekmantown and Peru, and they are struggling to get kids interested in them. Many parents think that if their child isn’t going to college, it is a failure.”
Mundy added that part of the problem is the stereotypes that people have about trade jobs like plumbers, electricians and welders. “If young kids had more exposure to successful, fun and cool profes- sionals currently doing those jobs, it might change their perspective.”
Leary passionately contributed to the topic. “Just walk through my employee parking lot in the morning. They are all nice cars so you know that these are good paying jobs. My employees make good money and they work hard.” Martin suggested a different option. “Even if a student has aspirations of getting a degree someday, we (Nova Bus) are willing to help support them financially while they do that. They can work, earn a good wage and we can help pay for their education. School administrators are often oblivious to the fact that we help fund college education for our employees.”
As the cost of a college education continues to rise, much attention is placed on the burden of debt that most college graduates take with them along with their diploma. If students want a good paying job and a nice quality of life without the crippling burden of debt, companies like Mars Mechanical, PM Leary Restoration and Nova Bus are ready to offer alternatives to college. No one at our table thought that a col- lege education wasn’t a worthwhile experience, but clearly our group was concerned about the idea that every student must go to college or risk a lifetime of low earnings.
Looking ahead, 2016
When asked to peer into the future, most of our participants had positive projections. After The Northeast Group lost two major accounts in 2014-15, Vicencio and her team were able to secure an even bigger warehouse and distribution client during the last quarter of this year to fill the gap. “The estimate for the work they will bring us in 2016 appears to make up for both of the customers we lost,” she added confidently.
It is hard not to notice that the Strand Theater has started to hold regular events. Mundy is eager to continue to grow the staff and the performance schedule in 2016. “We are still in a growth phase,” she explained. “In order to book someone, you have to come up with half the fee up front. We can’t afford the seed money needed for a full season right now.” When shows sell tickets, money comes in behind it. Mundy and her team are working to secure business sponsorships so that the theater can afford to book more shows in advance.
Going Big or Staying Small
Much to the dismay of local craft beer lovers, The AuSable Brewing Company hopes to keep things small at its Keeseville location at least for now. “Everybody expects us to try and go big,” Badger described, “I finally feel like we are in a pretty good place with construction and we now can focus on maximizing production.” Nova Bus, on the other hand, is in the middle of expanding its showroom. “With our increase in production will come an increase in employment in the area,” said Martin, “In order to maintain our current pace through 2016 we still have to get some orders, but they will come.”
Mars Mechanical is looking forward to branching out to provide HVAC services to a new market in the coming months. “We are primarily a commercial provider, but we are going to get more into the residential sector,” explained Mars. “The challenge we can already see is finding a service and pricing structure that accommodates the diversity of wealth out there in residential homes – the fine second homes as compared with average residences in the area.”
Pat Leary is looking forward to growth in 2016 as well. “I am excited! With All-Safe Fire Sprinkler becoming part of PM Leary, LLC it’s just another piece completing the puzzle of what we do and offer for residential and commercial customers,” he explained. “Another addition for 2016 is The Basement Guy, this is where we can take an unfinished basement, damp or wet, and completely remodel and make it usable. I think the comamutnityeis cromsing together more than ever to make this a great place to live and feel good about the future.”
All the Right Ingredients for Success
Economic development in the North Country is thriving while other areas of New York State are still struggling to climb out of the recession. The people who live and work here have a strong sense of collaboration, and a history of coming together to make a better life for themselves. Big businesses are attracted to the area for a variety of financial reasons, but our community leaders understand full well that they can’t sustain business without a healthy workforce. Employees and their families in turn bring attention to the need for housing, recreation and education. There is clearly work to be done, especially in the area of the availability of certain trade skills among the workforce. Overall, there was a tone of community pride and gratitude for the successes we have already realized, as well as a sense of shared responsibility for working together to make continuous progress on the problems that remain.