Like No Other

Some events are traditions — eagerly anticipated, not to be missed. Unfortunately, in 2020 many of those were canceled but others were reimagined to take place virtually. We are grateful the 31st annual Strictly Business Forum fell into the latter category. As a long-time moderator at the Forum, I look forward to the event. This year we didn’t have the normal large gathering, the bustle and hum of folks greeting one another and sharing breakfast, or the good-natured cajoling and occasional heckling that takes place while Publisher Herb Carpenter moves around the room introducing each guest. Coming at a time when we all needed “a shot in the arm” that was a disappointment but, even without Herb, the leaders in my group were ready to go.

At Table Five were the following North Country luminaries:

Jim Abdallah: Vice President AEDA, PC
Tish Biesemeyer: Principal Burnham Benefit Advisors
Linda Bourgeois: President and CEO of UFirst Federal Credit Union
Ray DiPasquale: President of Clinton Community College
Billy Jones: New York State Assembly
Sylvie Nelson: Executive Director North Country Workforce Development Board
Bill Owens: Attorney Stafford Owens Law
Joel Wood: Director NAmTrans

Our discussions began with a look at the pandemic’s impact on each business. For the most part, answers reflected a common tale of panic when the Governor’s executive order locking down the state came in mid-March but all that changed as they worked out their individual paths forward. Biesemeyer, Bourgeois, and Wood explained that plans already in place and the strengths of their respective teams could not be understated. They were grateful to have been in the solid position they were.

“We rose to the occasion,” Biesemeyer stated, “and because of that our services and client commitment actually improved in 2020. Our technology access through our parent company, Alera, gave us the tools and recourses for additional Human Resources expertise along with online benefit administration.”

According to Bourgeois, UFirst had a solid year. Its net worth remained strong and it continued to be well capitalized. Even with all the changes the credit union was able to conduct business, albeit much of it either on line or by appointments at first. “We operated in a closed environment beginning in March but by June we were able to systematically reopen branches in a safe manner.”

Attorney Owens explained his firm does a great deal of work with Canadian companies. “We have about 10 lawyers and 15 employees. During the first two or three months of the pandemic we saw a bit of a slowdown but now work has picked back up to where it has been for years. The border is open for commercial traffic so that makes a difference in terms of the activity we see. Businesses in hospitality and retail have not been as fortunate.”

Wood focused on lessons learned in 2020 and the positives of our region’s diverse transportation equipment manufacturing base. “Despite the many challenges and hurdles posed by the pandemic, the North Country’s Transportation Equipment & Aerospace Cluster has not only survived but has grown – proving once again its resiliency and ability to not only adapt but thrive during tough times.”

For Assemblyman Billy Jones 2020 started out very promising but unfortunately that changed quickly. “Once the pandemic hit, our focus became helping constituents navigate issues such as unemployment, PPP, small business loans, and acquiring PPE,” he explained. “We continue to remain focused on helping through whatever phase we are in because, for a lot of folks in our area, this is not over and won’t be for some time.” He continued, emphasizing that virtual learning and the need to work from home have shone a light on the North Country problem of broadband connectivity, an issue that until recently he felt was falling on deaf ears.

Abdallah emphasized how fortunate AEDA was to keep its doors open and maintain steady business. “The pandemic presented many hurdles. We needed to establish standards for working remotely within weeks, manage staff remotely for months and then implement a work plan to return to the office once the State allowed that option.”

For DiPasquale the year was unprecedented. Clinton Community College experienced a significant decline in enrollment as well as cuts in State funding. That translated to a reorganization of the delivery of services and a downsizing of staff. “With 95% of our students doing remote learning, we relied heavily on technology to support different styles of teaching and learning,” he stated. “Some of our programs could not transfer to remote learning. Some of our classes have to be in person. The staff and faculty should be congratulated for an extraordinary semester in helping our students.”

Nelson described the unexpected that occurred at Workforce Development. “We thought we would see a surge in the number of people seeking work due to pandemic layoffs but that didn’t happen. We assumed the reason was the federal stimulus package and increased unemployment benefits. But when those programs ended and our number of clients remained about the same, we knew we had to dig deeper to identify the reasons.”

Technology has been a critical tool for all who have been working their way through this pandemic. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Cisco, and other platforms put people in touch in ways few had used before.

For UFirst, its website, online banking, mobile banking, mobile Deposit Capture, Bill Pay, Online Membership and Loan Applications, eSign, Account to Account and Person to Person Transfers, and Card Valet have all been invaluable.

“It’s not uncommon for me to have four or more online meetings a day,” Owens observed. “We’ve invested in hardware and software so that almost all of our people can work from home.”

“If there was one positive result in this pandemic it was that it has forced us to research and establish new technologies for our office that we had not utilized pre-pandemic,” Abdallah emphasized. “Remote computer access (Splashtop, Zoom, GoToMeeting, RingCentral).”

Asked about how each business will need to change in 2021 to meet the challenges of the pandemic and economic downturn the answers were interestingly varied.

Bourgeois: “We plan to stay on course. We have our game plan in place from what we experienced this year, and we will do whatever is needed as we go forward. We are mindful that our members have been challenged financially through all of this and we stand ready to help.”

Abdallah: “We will continue with our current business model but focus more on marketing and controlling budgets.”

Owens: “We believe that the evolution and growth of the firm is occurring naturally as younger partners and associates join the firm. They bring technology skills and creative marketing ideas which we are adopting.”

Biesemeyer: “We will be fine tuning the tools available to us and always talking with our clients. Every client has different needs and objectives. We will be ready to discuss cost effective ways to provide benefits and continue to look outside the box.”

Jones: “We will continue to remain focused on helping businesses and constituents navigate these uncharted waters. I will seek to find resources to help them combat the economic downturn.”

Wood: NAmTrans will continue to provide the necessary support to our cluster companies including but not limited to workforce recruitment and retention activities, employee training programs, technical assistance, general company promotion and awareness, and networking/B2B events. We are looking forward to hosting the second iteration of our Quebec-New York Transportation Rendezvous and B2B event in 2021.”

DiPasquale: “We will need to downsize our staff; cut expenses, purchases and travel; consolidate contracts, and reorganize the delivery of our services. But while we are mired in challenges there are some signs that things are getting back to normal. Our Institute for Advanced Manufacturing has contracts in place to provide technology training for area employers beginning in January. Those companies are excited to begin the programs and we are excited to start the year with something resembling normalcy.”

Nelson: “Our big concern in 2021 will be to find out why our region’s unemployment is back to almost pre-COVID levels. Where are the people? Are they staying home because their children’s school is hybrid or online? Are they not going back to work because they earn more on unemployment? Are they staying out of the job market because they cannot access quality and affordable child care? Are these issues primarily affecting women? We need data to paint an accurate picture of this situation.”

When I asked about the North Country’s greatest challenges, the answers came fast and furious.

: Housing, taxes, cell service, and shopping.

Wood: Attracting a young, skilled workforce; a 5-year federal transportation bill in 2021; changing the perception that manufacturing is a boring, low-paying, dirty career choice; available and affordable childcare; transportation; and broadband/cell coverage.”

Owens: The Canadian border being closed! If the border opens that will be good for the area but as long as Canada, and Quebec in particular, keeps a quarantine of 14 days in place, that is going to continue to inhibit normal relations.”

Biesemeyer: Educating the workforce, housing, and jobs that provide a living wage that people can support themselves with and New York State needs to be more business friendly.

Jones: Broadband! We have seen an increased need for reliable internet service, not just in our region, but across the nation. I remain focused on helping bridge that gap. Also, border restrictions have imposed incredible hardship on our region and as the co-chair of the C5G East’s Canada-US Relations Committee I will work to find a solution with our partners to safely reopen the border.

Abdallah: Establishing and implementing a plan to return to normal. That will likely be through a national/state trickle down but we must be at the forefront.

Bourgeois: Reopening the Canadian border, encouraging our youth to use the educational institutions we have here, making sure there are career opportunities for our graduates, and broadband for all locations.

Nelson: Workforce shortages, our hospitality and retail industries, poverty levels, employees training, affordable child care.

As we approached the end of our discussions, I asked my final question. “What does the North Country need to do to create a prosperous future?”

Biesemeyer: Attract young families and professionals who want to live here and have careers. Education, housing and tax incentives for businesses are also important.

Abdallah: Our families and residents must have a path to return to normal. This includes work, school, recreation, etc.

Bourgeois: Leveraging the capabilities of the Chamber of Commerce to enhance economic growth. We also need to create a community capable of embracing diversity.

Owens: We need to continue to retain our quality of life, expand technology useage, expand work force development and continue our integration with Canadian business which I suspect will explode when COVID ends based upon the pent up demand we are seeing.

Nelson: We need to fund workforce development training and to realize that child care is economic development. Quality child care will give everyone in the North Country an opportunity to join the workforce and access available jobs. In turn, that will help counteract the ALICE syndrome affecting our communities. And lastly, we need the border to reopen.

Wood: We need to stay the course and continue to do what we have done for the past 25 years – support and grow our manufacturing base, invest in training and certification programs that create a strong talent pipeline and attract FDi to the area from Canada and beyond.

DiPisquale: More opportunities to bring tourists and families and promoting the area in all its beauty to potential new residents and gearing promotional opportunities toward families.

Jones: The vaccine will certainly help in the short term but overall, the North Country needs to continue to do what it does best – work together.

As our discussions wound down, it started to snow and the group began checking in with each other. The conversations were not just about businesses but more personal. All were happy to be able to connect with each other, and appreciated the candor, humility and support of one another. There were smiles and genuine commitments to sharing a table, a coffee, a meal in person when safety protocols allow. As the snow continued to fall, glimmers of hope were exchanged. We finished by listening to Garry Douglas, the North Country’s strongest advocate, who offered the words of Maya Angelou, “We may be changed but we refuse to be reduced.” In a year like no other, after a discussion like no other, yes, we are changed but the group I met with was anything but reduced.