On a frosty December morning in 2021, seven dynamic business leaders turned on their computers, zoomed in their cameras, tested their sound , and entered the 32nd Annual Strictly Business Forum Google-Meet room. Unlike many virtual meetings of today, the business forum invites hearty conversations, welcomes many voices and celebrates all ideas. We realized, among our group, the solutions for these most challenging times live most assuredly in our hands. Participants included:
Michael Cashman: Supervisor, Town of Plattsburgh
David Coryer: Co-Founder/COO, Coryer Staffing Corp.
Neil Fesette: Owner/Broker, Fesette Realty
Nicole Laurin: Executive Director/CEO, Joint Council of Economic Opportunity (JCEO)
Lynn Magnus: Chief Compliance Officer/ Director of Business Strategy, Long Run Wealth Advisors
Bill Meyers: Market Area Manager, Casella Waste Management
Connie Wille: CEO, Champlain Valley Family Center
Our community embraces politicians who say, “We [government] can be huge obstructionists…” (Michael Cashman) and successful business people who say, “We’ve experienced a drop in the segment of the population that thrives on taking their trash to the local convenience station, seeing the attendant and sharing the talk of the day…” (Bill Meyers) and healthcare providers who say, “Stigma is a big word, and it doesn’t just impact substance abuse and mental health…” (Connie Wille). These truly authentic conversations create a pathway for our community to heal, grow and succeed regardless of the challenges ahead.
Multiple topics were covered in our time together. The overarching themes swung like the pendulum between positive and opportunity for improvement. Generally, all industries fared well in 2021.
Champlain Valley Family Center was able to maintain a full counseling staff for substance use disorders and has been approved to expand services to include mental health. Willie: The agency had a very stable year related to services to clients, a steady workforce, and experienced a solid financial year. In spite of the pandemic, the year was productive, and this is a credit to the staff and the Board of Directors of this agency. CVFC remained attentive to providing quality services, and keenly focused on health.
Casella Waste Management enjoyed 2021 with full staffing in two divisions in New York State, through efforts to recruit, incentive and grow their staff, allowing the demands for the changing service structure to be met. Meyer: Our business has been steady in 2021. Our residential services, temporary dumpster work and number of seasonal one-time events all came back stronger than anticipated year over year.
Early-on in the pandemic the Town of Plattsburgh executed its modified zero-based budgeting and the town staff voluntarily gave up their annual increases, resulting in beating the NYS tax cap and providing tax relief to property owners. Cashman: From the start of the pandemic, we took a conservative approach to our budgeting and our 2022 budget reflects strong fiscal health. Over the last year we have advanced the Town Center Smart Growth Plan, installation of traffic light on Ampersand/Rugar Street, continued partnership with Clinton County and The Development Corp to develop the former County Airport, a Public/Private Partnership with the Clinton County Board of Realtors, started construction on our new well as part of our $24 million Water Capital Plan. Planning and infrastructure are staples of our municipality. We continue to see growth and investment.
Coryer Staffing enjoyed 22% growth and expanded into Vermont. Coryer: We have been very fortunate in this second year of the pandemic. Labor shortages continue to create strong demand for people and as such, strong demand for our services across all of the sectors we serve.
Fesette Realty qualified the real estate business as “off the charts” with volumes up 30-35% and average sale prices up over 20%. Fesette: The real estate market performed well in 2021 despite the inventory of homes for sale being stubbornly low. Low inventory, low interest rates, government stimulus, and strong buyer demand has been a recipe for higher home values not only in our market but across the United States. Our rental business has been strong although the eviction moratorium created issues during 2021. Our property, Plattsburgh RV Park, improved from 2020, but we were still down considerably due to the Canadian border being closed.
Long Run Wealth Advisors has seen strong growth driven by an increase in client activity and continued increases in market indexes year over year. Magnus: our performance in 2021 was driven by both the expansion of our business, on-boarding of new clients who are focused on planning for and through retirement, coupled with strong market performance with S&P, Nasdaq and Dow all up 15-25% YTD.
JCEO reported additional funding for Head Start and other Community Services Block Grant programs and an increased effort to partner with other local agencies to increase the availability of affordable housing. Laurin: We need to focus on the current issues and find ways to mitigate them before pushing for more growth. I understand and appreciate that everyone wants our area to grow, but we have some fundamental issues right now that will only get worse if we try to grow before addressing issues such as housing and child care.
As we all tried to focus on the positives and solutions, it was impossible to not have COVID bleed into the conversation. For all the challenges, COVID-19 has provided for many permanent changes to the way we do business.
Meyer: We learned some positions can be just as effective working from home and we have become more flexible in accommodating time off. Training through our CDL Schools, and Apprenticeship Programs is more important than ever. We continue to evaluate our wages and have increased our starting commercial driver rate by $4 per hour over the last three years, added signing bonuses for new hires, and incentive bonuses to current employees for successful employee referrals.
Cashman: The Town of Plattsburgh adopted a number of things to assist with the front end services. We continue to use Zoom for some of our meetings with developers. We also adopted a Public Health Emergency Operation Plan. Some smaller items include installing a walk-up window, and drop box and we are currently reworking our website.
Magnus: Financial planning is often a personal face-to-face business, but through the pandemic we’ve learned to embrace the use of Zoom to work with our clients. While there can be some technology challenges at times, seeing people’s faces and reactions is an important part of connecting with our clients.
Laurin: Like many, we have found that there are many things we can do more efficiently via virtual meetings and e-mail instead of in person. On the flipside, there are still many services and meetings that are better in person and we are providing those as safely as we can.
Fesette: The only change I am making is to allow some employees to work remotely on an as-needed basis. I view this more as an employee retention and job satisfaction effort than anything else.
Wille: During 2020 CVFC made a quick pivot to offering telehealth services. Every clinician is equipped to allow them to work from home. This is a change that will be a permanent option available to those we serve and the clinicians that provide care. Staff that used to attend meetings face to face now attend through one of the many available platforms.
Along with all the positive outcomes, each business leader shared an acute understanding of the challenges we face, most profoundly in the mental health arena impacting all ages and all socio-economic levels. We heard stories of once vibrant youth facing fear of participating in social settings, expressing deep sadness and detachment from their friends and education. Combined with the adult/parent stressors from managing childcare issues daily and general uncertainties, the environment is a breeding ground for experimental alcohol and drug use and an exacting formula for many to expand their use of mind/mood altering substances.
Challenges facing the North Country include:
Coryer: Recruitment of young professionals and training of the existing labor pool to better support existing and future employers that are attracted to the area. Availability of housing appropriate for attracting young professionals to the area as well as comprehensive public transportation for working professionals across the Clinton, Essex and Franklin County region. Succession planning associated with the eventual, but hopefully not imminent retirement of Garry Douglas.
Laurin: In the North Country, there is a shortage of housing, especially that is safe and affordable. A lack of housing and the cost of housing in this area is a deterrent to those looking to move here or trying to stay here. Child care is a growing issue and concern for many families in our area. There are not enough child care providers to meet the level of need and many families cannot afford the care that is available, making it more difficult to maintain employment or even stay in this area.
Magnus: I agree that childcare and affordable housing remains one of the largest challenges in both attracting and retaining employees in the North Country. I’ve met several young professionals who are on great career tracks here, and are either pregnant or have little ones already at home and they are seriously struggling with the lack of child care spots and summer camps for their school aged children. It’s definitely putting a strain on their ability to remain two-parent working families.
Fesette: Our biggest challenge is retaining the people we have and attracting new businesses to our area (i.e., job creation).
Wille: I work in the human service delivery system so my focus is on our most vulnerable populations. The pandemic has clearly pointed out gaps in the delivery system. I am especially concerned with our children, adolescents and our elderly populations. The pandemic has resulted in isolation from support systems, from family and access to needed care. The problems are evident. Unfortunately, the solutions are complex and we need to address the challenges systemically, not one crisis at a time. Workforce is a key challenge for human service providers. Finding licensed and credentialed staff is extremely difficult.
Meyer: Attracting, hiring, training, and retaining the people needed to help North Country businesses grow and flourish. Specifically, healthcare, advanced manufacturing and tourism. Investment in critical infrastructure to continue to attract business development is needed. Highspeed broadband access throughout the North Country must be a top priority. Continuing to reinvigorate cross border travel, interaction and investment.
Cashman: Three challenges facing the North Country are (all forms of) housing, childcare and transportation. While there are plenty of challenges, these three are often linked to one another. Often one or more is coupled with other challenges.
Workforce development, recruitment and retention are thematic to every industry as the chase to find the best possible employees to perform our work at a time when there are not enough people to fill the open slots has pitted business against business, union against management, communities against themselves in the fight. The solutions for a prosperous future suggest we must invest in the underpinnings of what makes recruitment possible
Coryer: Low electric utility rates are the backbone of our manufacturing sector and we need to be forward thinking in how we are going to maintain this unique advantage far into the future.
Fesette: In order to prosper, we need to have good paying jobs. In order to attract/retain businesses and qualified employees, we need to have good healthcare, education, recreation, arts, and entertainment and transportation.
Magnus: We need to take advantage of what Covid has taught many – live where you love, and market all that the North Country has to offer from a location and access to outdoor activities perspective. Hopefully this will help to attract more health care providers, as well as professionals.
Wille: To do that we will need to invest in the next generations and showing them the possibility of “prosperity” is a starting place. Consistently messaging with facts that the North Country is the best place to raise a family, has significant opportunities and is safe and welcoming may offset many of the concerns I have heard about the “long hard winters”.
Meyer: Continue to expand our international airport and the properties that surround it. We also need to invest and develop our waterfront within and around the city. Invest, promote and partner with our colleges, universities and technical schools.
Some of the actionable highlights this group provided will take the effort of the strongest business leaders in our community to move forward. They include:
Wille: “I wish SUNY Plattsburgh could offer a MSW (Masters in Social Work) program.”
Cashman: “Like all sectors, we need look at recalibrating our hiring and retention practices. Take out parts of civil service tests that are outdated and revise the process to capture the importance of soft skills for interfacing with the public. Take the politics out of infrastructure.”
Laurin: “More money to support the school systems – educators are asked to be mental health counselors, nutrition counselors, nurses etc. in addition to providing education.”
Fesette: “I’m generally not a proponent of government meddling in private sector businesses, but feel it’s needed to solve the problem of contract/traveling healthcare organizations that are gutting the financial landscape for rural hospitals.”
Coryer: “Our RAMP program supports the need to de-stigmatize students that don’t want to pursue a college degree.”
Meyers: “The rigidness and regulations in healthcare and education hamstring our industries.”
Magnus: “Solving our childcare desert will help us in workforce development.