Poised for a Renaissance

On the scale of times that call for resilience and change, the challenges of the last decade can be divided into two equal parts — the first nine years and the last nine months. The 31st annual Strictly Business Forum convened this December to reflect on this past year which was, without question, a year like none other.

Like most events held during the storied year of 2020, the Forum took to the screens for a virtual meeting that included some of the sharpest business minds in the region. Adhering to safety protocols, the usual round table format was traded for the virtual rectangles-on a- screen video meeting. The familiar pandemic staple gets the job done but also bears a humorous resemblance to the opening credits of the classic television show The Brady Bunch. In spite of the limitations of the digital format we simultaneously love and loathe, strong community values of determination, collaboration and support reassuringly resounded throughout our conversation again this year.

Our honored guests represented education, economic development, retail, wholesale, and distribution:

Victoria Duley, Executive Director, Adirondack Economic Development Corporation
Dr. Alexander Enyedi, President, SUNY Plattsburgh
Kristen Hardman, Owner, Jackson & Callie
Dan Mannix, Superintendent, Beekmantown School District
Chris Trombley, Operations Manager, Eastern North America, Country Malt Group
Betsy Vicencio, VP/CFO, The Northeast Group


While all of the participants agreed it was a relief to have this terribly challenging year largely behind us, there was still a good amount of diversity and surprise twists in the conversation as we discussed how each business and industry fared during the past year and how the pandemic changed operations and outcomes.

The goa l of Adi rondack Economic Development Corporation (AEDC) is to provide advocacy and support to small businesses across 14 counties in the region. In a normal year, that is a daunting task for the small non-profit organization and its four full-time staff. The past nine months forced all businesses to face countless new complexities — restrictive and ever-changing health and safety protocols, mandated closures, and CARES Act funding applications to name a few. “We have been busier than ever,” explained Executive Director Victoria Duley. “We work primarily with economically and socially disadvantaged entrepreneurs who were vulnerable even before the pandemic.”

A year-end review of loan portfolios revealed patterns in the overall performance of the businesses AEDC served throughout this pandemic year. Not surprisingly, many local convenience restaurants and stores experienced a boost in sales when pandemic restrictions hit. Residents of rural areas, who ordinarily travel a distance to shop at preferred stores, were suddenly working from home and not driving very far. “When people are home juggling work, childcare, and homeschooling, time is everything,” Duley explained, “They often don’t mind paying a little more for gas and groceries when they are close to home.” Similarly, many restaurants who had pre-established take-out sales before the state restricted restaurant dining saw a huge increase in sales.”

At the other end of the spectrum, some sectors of business were designated non-essential and therefore limited more severely than others. Those included entertainment and health and fitness centers. Even after restrictions lessened, the unknowns of the pandemic left people hesitant to return to their normal use of these types of businesses. The final group of businesses most in danger of closing up shop are those long-time entrepreneurs who were winding down their careers or nearing retirement. The total reboot that was required in March caused many of them to re-evaluate their timelines. “That is a whole group of businesses that may now close — not because they couldn’t be successful, but because they don’t have the long-term motivation to figure out how to do everything differently,” Duley explained.

Kristen Hardman is still hopeful that the last few weeks of 2020 will help offset her Plattsburgh gift shop’s tremendous operating deficit this year. Jackson & Callie was one of the businesses that was ordered to shut down for three months this past spring. Hardman had the foresight to start building out an online sales platform earlier in the year but has struggled to launch this technology. Many of her pre-pandemic employees were senior citizens who did not want to return after the store re-opened. “I couldn’t afford to have many of them back anyway,” Hardman explained. With her usual staff out of commission, Hardman turned to Generation Z for assistance. “I purposefully brought in young people,” she shared. “They really are the future and they see things I don’t.” Hardman described the extraordinary contributions the four teenagers who work for her have made as she has allowed them “free reign” to put their ideas into practice. “These young people have helped me re-examine and streamline how I do things, and I am going to come out a stronger business as a result,” she proudly stated.

Country Malt Group began supplying craft brewers out of Champlain, New York in 1995. Today the company has grown to include 12 sites, distributing supplies for craft beer, wine and spirit producers internationally. Operations Manager Chris Trombley noted the business was solid in 2020, in spite of a pandemic-based divide in its customer base. He explained that craft brewers can choose to keg their beer or package it in cans or bottles for sale. “A lot of craft brewers don’t want to get into the complicated process of canning or bottling, they just want to work on their craft and keg it,” he described. Since kegs are primarily purchased by restaurants, the restrictions of the pandemic resulted in a markedly sharper impact on one segment of Country Malt Group’s customers than others. “The companies that already had canning or bottling lines and employees in place saw their business expand in some cases,” he continued. He was also relieved to report that commerce across the Canadian border remained stable, which otherwise would have destroyed his business that relies heavily on the port of Montreal.

The Northeast Group includes a diverse set of functions including warehouse, distribution, fulfillment, printing and direct mailing, and a new residential transitional housing campus with a recovery community center called the MHAB Life Skills Campus. The health of e-commerce and the US-Canada supply chain are critical to its success, and both of those were rocked by the pandemic. “Many of our customers are Canadian companies that import goods through the port of Montreal to the U.S. for distribution,” explained CFO Betsy Vicencio. While some customers use e-commerce to sell their goods, many of them rely on sales at brick-and-mortar retail stores. Vicencio further explained, “When the pandemic shuttered retail stores, that shut down the entire revenue stream for any of our customers who did not have an established portal to the big box stores.” This significantly decreased the fulfillment side of the organization, which demands the majority of The Northeast Group’s 50 employees. Vicencio reported the layoff of nearly 50% of the company’s workforce during the early months of the pandemic. “Fortunately, we were able to return most of our employees to work by mid-summer. We will end the year with an overall decrease in revenue of 20% for the year. We are a long-standing company with capacity to bend, we will be fine,”
she concluded optimistically.

Beekmantown Central School District recently became the first in the area to provide Chromebooks to its students. Thanks to grants and forward-thinking initiatives that Superintendent Dan Mannix and his staff began seven years ago, the district was well positioned to pivot to remote learning when it became an absolute necessity. “We were ready,” said Mannix, “Six years ago we knew how many kids had Wi-Fi and how many didn’t, and we were prepared to support those students.”

Perhaps more important than having the infrastructure to support remote learning was the buy-in and preparedness of the human factor. Chromebooks and technology use in and out of the classroom was part of the regular curriculum. When the pandemic closed the school doors, students, families, staff and teachers in the Beekmantown district were already familiar with the tools needed to support digital learning. “Many of our teachers jumped in early on our journey to become a 21st century school,” Mannix explained, “and that started paying dividends right out of the gate in March.”

The district had several significant budget challenges in 2020, including the loss of a $3M grant. Mannix described a bizarre and badly timed mistake made by the State of New York in its aid funding to the district. “We discovered the mistake and were told they were going to fix it but then the pandemic hit and budgets froze shortly after that.” Mannix does not expect those reparations and has re-budgeted with the shortfall. Beekmantown made some unpopular staffing changes this year which Mannix hopes will position it well for the challenges of the coming year where flat state aid funding is once again expected.

SUNY Plattsburgh welcomed its 11th President Dr. Alexander Enyedi with great expectations in January. Just as he was getting to know the campus and his leadership team, the pandemic abruptly tossed aside any plans for business as usual and engaged the emergency management plan instead. As a residential, in-person learning institution, the complexities of maintaining health and safety on campus were staggering. “In the very early stages of the pandemic last spring, we did not have access to COVID-19 testing, or contact tracing. In order to welcome students back in the Fall we focused on health and safety to develop a plan to track and monitor COVID-19 cases, and if needed, provide isolation and quarantine for our residential students,” Enyedi explained. Thanks to a strong relationship with the Clinton County Health Department and advances by SUNY Upstate Medical to develop pool testing, today the college is well-equipped with a variety of testing tools to help contain the spread of the virus on campus and in the community.

Similar to the challenges that Mannix faced in the Beekmantown School District, Enyedi led the campus through a rapid transition to fully remote learning in March. “We will never be the University of Phoenix or another fully online institution. Students come to us to learn because they want that in-person interaction with their professors,” he commented. The sudden shift of courses designed for in-person delivery to full remote delivery in the spring was necessary but not ideal. Over the summer, faculty had the opportunity to re-imagine what their fall courses would look like, and a hybrid model of course delivery emerged. “About 50% of our fall classes were fully remote, and the remainder were either fully in person or a blend of both,” Enyedi described.

College campuses are a microcosm of society and that means that SUNY Plattsburgh is essentially a city unto itself. Re-imagining instructional delivery was only one of the many concerns that Enyedi and his leadership team began addressing as Fall 2021 reopening planning began in April. “The plan was built around the health and safety of not only the university but the community at large here in Plattsburgh,” Enyedi remarked, noting that reducing density of people in classrooms and across campus was a key challenge. The plan was largely successful, resulting in only two cycles of infection over the entire semester. “Those cycles spiked and then came back down, so that is a positive indicator that we have been able to support the campus successfully,” he concluded.


A number of challenges were nearly universal among the participants. Those included a sudden sink-or-swim pivot to technology for business meetings, presentations, sales, and customer relations. Survival depended on quick, complete, and successful adaptation to tools like Zoom, Google Meets, website development, e-commerce, social media, and the infrastructure behind all of these. Budgets were stretched before the pandemic, so the restrictions and closures that followed were a huge burden on an already lean workforce.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a sudden change that threatened all aspects of our local economy and necessitated a re-evaluation of the way things work throughout the community. This scenario may sound familiar to our long-time readers who will recall that the North Country has overcome this kind of challenge before. The closure of the Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 1993 taught us that we are interdependent and come out stronger when we work together. As North Country Chamber of Commerce Director Garry Douglas said in his final remarks, “The lessons we learned and the changes we made back in 1993 made us better prepared than we would otherwise be today” when it comes to our collective response to the pandemic.

From telemedicine and adaptive mental health initiatives to providing meals to homebased school families to ‘shop local’ initiatives, the way the community rallied is proof positive that we have not forgotten those critical lessons. If history offers any prediction for how this story will unfold, we close the challenging chapter of 2020 with the expectation and knowledge that the next chapter is ripe with potential for another renaissance for this incredibly resilient community.