In what has become a decades long tradition, North Country business leaders convened in early December for the 2018 Strictly Business Forum. With unemployment on the decline, there were successes to celebrate but there were also very real problems to discuss such as the opioid epidemic and its fallout that has left virtually no one untouched.
At Table five the participants were:
• Steve Cacchio– CEO, Champlain National Bank
• Courtney DeLaura– Personal Lines Manager, Agency Insurance Brokers, Inc.
• John Ettling– President, SUNY Plattsburgh
• David N. Favro– Sheriff, Clinton County
• Richard Knight Jr.– President, Knight Automotive
• Richelle Gregory– Clinton County Director of Community Services
• Angela Smith– Assistant Director & Certified Business Advisor, SUNY Canton SBDC @ Clinton Community College
• Trent Trahan– CEO, PrimeLink
Year in Review
Our discussion began with congratulations for Dave Favro on the election victory that put him in the Clinton County Sheriff’s office for a fifth consecutive term. “We’ve had a pretty good year,” he said, “although we measure our successes and failures a little bit differently than most businesses. Our biggest struggle is with our budget. The overtime required in order to supply all the services that people need and want for the safety of the community poses a problem .” And so what the Sheriff does to offset budget constraints is reach out to other counties and other states when the population in the county jail gets low to advise them of availability. “In some areas people have being detained in mobile trailers outside their jail because there was no more room,” Favro described. “We can lease our empty beds for $106 a night per inmate, an offer that ends up working as a supplement to our budget and a help to the other communities.”
Courtney DeLaura shared that 2018 was a good year for Agency Insurance. “This year we’ve experienced modest growth and are seeing a lot of purchases — people buying homes and upgrading their cars,” a sentiment that was echoed by Steve Cacchio. “ 2018 has been a good year for us. There is good consumer confidence out there and we are noticing increased demand for loan products, residential mortgages and personal loans.”
Rich Knight acknowledged similar growth and transition in his business. “Although new car sales are down, our service business has grown tremendously and growth in fleet accounts has helped us. “ But with good news comes some bad news for Knight Auto. “My office manager, business manager and accountant are all retiring this year. Those employees are my family. When I consider growth or success of my business it’s not always directly reflected in my bottom line.”
Angela Smith explained, “When the economy is booming, so is economic development. The Plattsburgh SBDC office is on track to have another banner year. A typical year for our center yields $3-4M in impact. Last year we worked with 370 clients and generated $7,625,985 with 83 jobs created and/or saved in economic impact for the region. Two months into our 2018-2019 fiscal year and we have already met with 179 clients and recorded $2,462,088 with 34 jobs created or saved.”
SUNY Plattsburgh’s President John Ettling was pleased to announce, “Enrollments seem to have stabilized this year after years of decline. We greatly appreciate the efforts of the community to help us retain the students we have,” he explained. “There was a time some 40 years ago when we got 75% of our budget through appropriations. Now upwards of 80% of our budget comes from our students and so enrollment is crucial. We’ve found ourselves recruiting from the area in the state with the most people, and consequently the most high school graduates, which is New York City, and that can create a bit of culture shock for our students.”
Trent Trahan was proud to share that of PrimeLink/Champlain Telephone’s 79 employees, four celebrated their 40th anniversary in 2018 and one employee has 50 years with the local telecommunications company. Trahan went on to say, “We’ve installed 182 miles of new fiber this year which pushes us over 3,000 miles of fiber in our service area, and we’ve updated our network.” He went on to explain Moore’s Law —a theory originally asserted in 1965 that technology has a half-life of about two years. “Today the life of technology is thought to be shortened by about 25% of Moore’s more than 50 year old prediction, which can be a challenge for any organization.
Richelle Gregory who is on the front lines of some of the biggest challenges facing our community offered, “We are in an extremely difficult behavioral health crisis and an opioid epidemic the likes of which we’ve never seen before. We are struggling with what to do for that population. We have received some grants thanks to our wonderful politicians, but those grants are difficult to come by and making sure the funding reaches whose who need them most is difficult.”
Our Best Resource
Around the table the common challenge was labor and employee retention. Gregory shared, “We are constantly navigating a staffing shortage. We need social workers and mental health workers to facilitate some of our programs and Clinton County can’t compete with the hospital for nurses and other specialty service personnel. Ettling concurred, “We’ve got a graying faculty and a student body that has grown up with technology. We need to make some changes to how we do things.” Gregory followed up in agreement, offering, “We are pursuing every avenue. We are beginning tele-counseling services and are continuing to follow up on public/private partnerships. We are very excited about what’s happening right here at the MHAB life skills campus.
Trahan echoed the challenge of recruitment, “The current rate for a technical person is sixty thousand dollars a year plus insurance and benefits on top of that.” Smith asked if that was unique to the North Country. Trahan responded, “In more dense markets, that cost can be spread over a number of companies by using managed service providers.”
The business leaders at my table expressed a resounding appreciation for the relationships and the unique opportunities to be found in the North Country. Gregory said enthusiastically, “This area is incredible. You get the opportunity to get to know people like the Clinton County Sheriff, the District Attorney. You can call them up and speak to them. There are not a lot of areas that offer the opportunity to grow those kinds of relationships and we get things done based on those types of relationships in this close knit community.” Ettling concurred, adding, “That’s part of the reason Garry (Douglas) says we punch above our weight and he’s done that. He has put together a Chamber of Commerce with 4,000 members from all over the North Country. When Garry calls, people in high office like Senator Chuck Schumer return his phone calls. That’s what relationships produce.”
Our group was unanimous in its pride in the area but also realistic about the need for improvements in infrastructure and affordable housing. They expressed a desire to see more businesses in downtown Plattsburgh and hoped for more ways to capitalize on our quality of life and our lakefront. Ideas for cross promoting festivals that would draw people in were offered. Smith provided the example of the revitalization of the Mace Chasm Road, detailing the work of local farmers, cheesemongers and craft brewers who have made the area a go-to place. All the businesses work in collaboration with food truck vendors, musicians and breweries to create a reason for people to drive to Keeseville on a summer night and it has met with resounding success DeLaura, who serves on the Board at the Strand Theatre, likened the Mace Chasm revitalization effort to initiatives the Strand is making. “To be more inclusive we are looking at expanding the type of talent we are booking, trying to keep the ticket prices reasonable and we have initiated a community scholarship program,” she explained.”
I look forward to the SB Forum every year. It’s right after Thanksgiving and just before Christmas starts to feel close. The conversation varies slightly each year, but at the end of the day, business leaders in the North Country care enough about our community to come together and invest their time to discuss the challenges and successes of where we live. It’s a unique and remarkable event to be a part of.