Collaboration is the Key

In his closing remarks to wrap up the 30th annual Strictly Business Forum, North Country Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Garry Douglas advised of the importance to “Never Waste Failure.” The relationships and partnerships that have been built in the North Country, particularly in the past 25 years since the closing of the Plattsburgh  Air Force Base, have demonstrated that point. Failure has not been wasted here. It has propelled us forward and in new directions.

Participants at my Forum table were in agreement that over the past 30 years the North Country has grown and evolved and although challenges remain, the business outlook is good. Joining me were:

Hope Coryer, Founder of ETS Staffing Agency

Doug Hoffman, Managing Partner of The Hoffman Eells Group

Harrison Sangster, Branch Manager of Advisors Mortgage Group, LLC in Lake Placid

Justin Ihne, CEO of the Plattsburgh/Malone YMCA

Richelle Gregory, Director of Clinton County Community Services & Clinton County Mental Health and Addiction Services

Bill McColgan, President and CEO of Mountain Lake PBS

Cathy Forget, Manager of AAA Northway

Hope Coryer began our discussion by explaining how different the current North Country business climate is. When she began ETS 37 years ago minimum wage was $3.10/hour and the unemployment rate was 10.8%. “There was very little sharing of information and little trust or communication among business people. Small and larger businesses held information close to the vest in order to protect their interests and were fearful of competition. The closure of the PAFB was what saved our community. It was then that we all stood up straight and made the commitment to pull together, share information and grow a prosperous region together.”

The closure of the Air Force Base was a defining moment for the region and it created a lot of uncertainty about jobs and the economy. Fortunately, Doug Hoffman said, “We have fared extremely well. The new post-PAFB economy is stronger and less dependent on one industry. The Base closing wasn’t the end of the world even though it looked like it at the time.”

Cathy Forget agreed, adding that Plattsburgh “had the right people in the right positions” to develop business and partnerships that have led the region to where it is today.”

Staffing Struggles

Asked about current problems, the people at my table pointed to our low unemployment rate which continues to make finding and retaining skilled employees a challenge.

Justin Ihne said the YMCA has seen steady growth over the past three years, with a three to four percent increase in memberships. “The community and business support have been tremendous but growth has been slowed somewhat by our inability to hire qualified staff.”

Hoffman echoed that sentiment. “2019 was a good year for our business but our growth was limited by an inability to hire qualified people. We are now routinely using college interns in our practice to supplement the lack of experienced candidates. We have developed relationships with SUNY Plattsburgh and Clarkson that give us exposure to the students who want to intern with CPA firms. The interns are trained on the job. Some are given permanent job opportunities and have turned into excellent long-term employees who have fit into our culture and are better trained to our systems and procedures than if we hired an experienced outside candidate.”

Ihne said more collaboration and partnerships could help the workforce. “Some efforts seem to be duplicated, so if there is a way to consolidate, that could alleviate some staffing challenges. With strong partnerships and a community that is truly invested in the wellness of its population, we can grow our workforce locally.”

“If we promote an atmosphere that eliminates stigma, encourages behavioral health treatment and supports those in recovery, we can develop a stronger workforce,” Gregory emphasized. “We are piloting something in this area that isn’t happening elsewhere in the state,” she said referring to the unique public-private partnership that got the MHAB facility, where the SB Forum was held, off the ground. “This partnership has created an atmosphere that eliminates barriers and creates a foundation of collaboration, built on the best interests of our community.”

“With strong partnerships and a community  that is truly invested in the wellness of  its population, we can grow our workforce locally.” —Justin Ihne

Availability of housing at all income levels is another challenge that complicates attracting new residents to the area, Sangster observed. “It has been an incredibly good year for residential lending, but there is not as much inventory as there is demand,” he explained. “I believe the housing market will soften in 2020 but that my business will continue to grow.”

The North Country needs to sell itself and the quality of life that we enjoy here. “People don’t appreciate how great the North Country is,” McColgan said. “We need to celebrate what we have here.”


There has been great change in the North Country and in the travel industry in the 42 years that Cathy Forget has been with AAA. “A willingness to make change to improve the business and finding ways to stay relevant has been critical to success,” she explained.

Public media is in a state of transition, McColgan observed. Mountain Lake PBS has invested in new platforms in an attempt to keep up with changing consumer preferences but the core mission remains unchanged. MLPBS strives to provide quality, trusted educational programming; thoughtful, thorough storytelling on issues that are important to the community and partnerships that help to address the challenges we face.

Hoffman emphasized that the future of business will continue to be more web-based, with the ability to do business globally from a home office. Lack of adequate technology is a handicap for businesses and the community. The need for rural broadband infrastructure will continue to be incredibly important.

Sangster observed, “School districts and educational institutions rely heavily on broadband access to deliver programs and courses. Providing technology to every student is a benefit to the entire community.”

“Universal access to technology will take a major investment and it can’t just be private industry that makes it happen because they’re not going to see the return on their investment,” McColgan emphasized.

“I hope with the increase in technology that we don’t lose the sense of community that comes with face-to-face interaction,” Ihne said. “We need to create spaces that bring people together.”

Community Impact

ETS Staffing Agency has grown every year Coryer said. Staffing is a rapidly changing industry and innovation and technology is the future. “Now we meet the workforce where they are and on their terms, using tools and technology. Gone are the days when people would find their next job in the newspaper.” ETS invests in training programs that help potential employees gain the necessary skills for success. “We also collect and present data to our clients on the labor market, hiring trends and pay rates and we publish an extensive salary guide each year so employers can stay ahead of market trends.”

The YMCA is built on three focus areas: youth development, healthy living and social responsibility, Ihne explained. “A big part of what the Y does is create community within community” with programs that teach about confidence and self-esteem, help people suffering with heart conditions and diseases like Parkinson’s and provide access to people of all income levels with a sliding scale fee model.

“I see this community growing,” Ihne said. “Folks are going to be drawn here for the opportunities and the quality of life is wonderful. It’s beautiful and it’s big enough that you don’t see everyone everyday, but small enough that you can get on the phone with your assemblyman.”

“A willingness to make change  improve the business and finding ways  to stay relevant has been critical to success.”  —Kathy Forget

Hoffman’s firm has set itself apart by not only offering tradi tional compliance services but  also offering business coaching  and advising and succession  planning. These services fill a  need his clients have requested.

“Behavioral health is struggling  everywhere,” Gregory said, adding that there aren’t enough  counselors and providers to fit  the needs of our region, and unfortunately that isn’t something she expects to get much better. “We will do our best to make gains and get help to the people
who need it,” she said.

The availability of news and entertainment content will continue to grow as technology improves, so Mountain Lake PBS will need to continue to adapt to changing consumer preferences, McColgan said. “Our focus will be on making sure that people know that we provide trusted

The relationships that have been established in the North Country have propelled us forward into a new era without Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Our region is unique in its collaborative nature where businesses and members of the community have an open line of  communication with elected officials and business leaders.

The SB Forum is a prime example of what community engagement and enrichment looks like —partnerships and collaboration that begin with sharing our challenges and working together to come up with effective solutions that will help our region to thrive.

30 Years Ago

“I was a junior in high school in Howell, New Jersey, trying to figure out how to stay out of trouble and make it through high school.” Harrison Sangster Advisors Mortgage Group

“We were a three person office on the corner of Oak and Cornelia Streets known as the Northway Automobile Club. We had recently opened our travel agency services and had purchased our first piece of computer technology—a dot matrix printer.”  Cathy Forget AAA Northway

“I was in the very real struggle of growing a fledgling business from scratch. Unemployment was high, wages were low and on top of that I was a woman entrepreneur. Looking back I’m proud of what I built and the legacy I have been able to provide for my family.” Hope Coryer Founder of ETS

“I was about to celebrate my 16th birthday.”  Richelle Gregory Clinton County Mental Health & Addiction Services

Rachel Dutil is the PR and  Marketing Coordinator at William H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute.