Table 6: Optimism Despite Challenges

Conversations were animated and enthusiastic at this year’s Strictly Business Forum in December. It could be the unique venue — this year the event was held at the Clinton Community College Dining Hall/Conference Center on Idaho Avenue, future site of MHAB Recovery Life Skills Community Center. The optimism was palpable in the smaller setting.

Table 6 attendees were:

Jim Abdallah, Vice President of AEDA, PC
Kent Backus, VP Regional Banking Manager for Community Bank
John Bernardi, CEO, United Way of the Adirondack Region, Inc.
David Coryer, Co-founder/COO of Coryer Staffing Corp.
Ray DiPasquale, President of Clinton Community College
Kristy Kennedy, VP of Marketing/Director of Tourism for the North Country Chamber of Commerce
Deena Giltz McCullough, President/CEO of Northern Insuring Agency
Ken Parkinson, Executive Director of MHAB Enterprises, LLC

State of the Union – A Look Back at 2018
While some businesses represented at our table had deeply established roots in the community, some were fledglings looking to the future with great anticipation. Ken Parkinson explained that MHAB Enterprises was newly created in 2018. “We are just getting up and running. We are very excited to begin helping people with housing and support services. There is certainly a need in the region.”

David Coryer explained, “Our business was started in 2016 and the community has been super supportive. We’ve come to realize that running a fast-growing company is an enormous challenge. You have to attract the best people, guide and motivate them but not overwork them and manage the heck out of your receivables and available capital. It is a balancing act. It is a task that never ends.”

Ray DiPasquale discussed the challenges his organization is facing. “Community colleges in New York State and across the nation are seeing a real decline in enrollment. Improvements in the economy have a direct impact on us,” he explained. “It has made us look at our business differently and analyze who we are attracting.”

For Deena Giltz McCullough and Northern Insuring, it was a good year with sales revenue up and highlights that were more than financial. “We are making more of an effort to increase our millennial workforce. We are giving them meaningful opportunities to advance in their careers and creating a culture where people feel valued and have purpose.”

Kent Backus explained, “I am lucky to be the regional manager of a ‘big little bank.’ While this was a more challenging year for us (rising interest rates and uncertainty in the market), we still saw solid growth in mortgages and deposits across our Adirondack region.”

“We’ve gone up and down just like a lot of small businesses,” Jim Abdallah explained. “In 2008, we had four professionals and now we are up to 12 – 15. The last two years we have seen 30-40% growth.”

John Bernardi commented on the United Way’s challenge of remaining relevant in a strong regional economy by addressing the needs of the working poor with the creation of the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) program. “The folks served by ALICE are one leaky roof, broken furnace or broken-down car away from becoming homeless, unemployed or going without their medication. They are living below a threshold of independence.”

Kristy Kennedy weighed in on marketing the region as a destination. “Sales and occupancy taxes are up and that is a good sign for our economy. I’m lucky as a marketer, I can make everything look pretty, but when visitors get here our businesses must deliver on our message. We thank them for that! Tourism on the Adirondack Coast is booming!”

Finding the Best Employees
With unemployment in the region hovering around 3.4%, the group was asked how they recruit staff. “I have used Coryer Staffing for recruiting entry level employees and also people with technical experience in plan development,” said Abdallah.” We have also tried newspaper ads but word of mouth can often be the clincher, particularly with individuals who want to return to the North Country.”

“At Community Bank, we are fortunate to have relatively low turnover. We get employees and they stay a long time,” said Backus. “We have used recruiters like Coryer to fill some lending positions in the past. We do a lot of internal training, as well as pay tuition costs for college courses to help employees who are on a career path. In Plattsburgh we are fortunate to have access to college students who enjoy working part time for us. Some stay on and become full time employees.”

“There is so much longevity at the Chamber,” Kennedy observed. “I have been there ten years and I am one of the newbies. I give credit to Garry (Douglas) and the executive staff for that. Part of our role is to help our members recruit quality employees. If they have an executive they want to relocate we try to give them the tools they need to sell the area. We’ve created videos, collateral information as well as two websites and”

Coryer looked past the 3.4% unemployment rate to another statistic, that of 16-24 year olds which, he explained, is closer to 10.5% unemployment across New York State. “That is an opportunity happening all day long,” he said. “If we can be effective at communicating to those individuals the opportunities happening in our community, we will always be able to grow the labor pool. `The more we do that, the easier the job is going to be for us to attract companies to the area.”

In an era where the millennial workforce is not always viewed in a positive light, McCullough’s experience is exactly the opposite. After offering an internal culture quiz that examined the generation they were born into and the generation they identify with, the results were surprising.

“Most of our millennials identified with traditionalists and boomers!” McCullough explained. “Managing with generational differences in mind is surprisingly simple. I’ve found that giving them direct feedback works. You can be both encouraging and clear. We have made some great millennial hires recently including my son Collin, who is the fourth generation to work at Northern.”

“Forty-five percent of households in our region can’t make ends meet without government assistance and they are not eligible for most of it because they are above the federal poverty limit ($11,500 for individuals and $23,000 for a family of four),” explained Bernardi. The ALICE threshold is $59,000 per household. “We need to raise awareness with the region’s companies about the people they employ who are struggling financially.”

What can we do better, North Country?
Transportation and child care were hands down the two areas that all agreed need to be tackled but ideas for solutions varied widely. “When are we going to meaningfully invest in public transportation that actually works and child care for individuals who need it to be able to work second and third shifts at our local companies?” asked Coryer. “We can sit around this table and talk about these issues for the next ten years but it is up to us, the business community, to come up with solutions that will have a meaningful impact on those who need it the most.”

“Public transportation is not likely to be a solution on its own due to the rural nature of our region, but instead could be part of a multi- pronged approach,” said Bernardi. “I have seen some unique programs using Lyft or Uber. As far as child care is concerned, I think we can make a difference.”

McCullough thought it was too soon to throw in the towel on public transportation options. “Let’s not say no. There needs to be a different way of looking at this and it needs to be a priority,” she emphasized. “Who is going to be the champion for transportation because the county can’t bear the brunt of the cost? It is an expensive project that is a critical need.”

“A lot of the things that make this a great place to live also create some of our biggest challenges,” added Backus. “Being able to provide adequate transportation to all our residents is a challenge we face. Both the private and public sector have to work together to address this.”

Bernardi added that employers like Mold-Rite Plastics have taken the transportation issue into their own hands and have created a shuttle system for people in Franklin County, getting people back and forth between Malone and Plattsburgh to their jobs.

“Whether we are talking about a business recruiting new employees, or a visitor to the region, it’s great that they can get here but unless they have their own car they can’t get around,” added Kennedy. “We want to know how we can leverage these conversations to help move the needle.”

Abdallah added, “For our firm, transportation is one of our big pluses. We have people who came from urban areas where they spent three hours commuting, whether it was on a train or driving. I see proximity to employment as attracting people to the community.”

“By design MHAB will providing stable housing so that people can live here in the North Country,” explained Ken Parkinson. “The affordability of the housing is instrumental in bringing new residents to our community. The MHAB location is within walking distance of a number of employers that have agreed to offer job opportunities for our residents. I’m looking forward to the positive impact MHAB will have on the area.”

Mostly Optimistic with a Chance for Improvement
The people at Table six agreed on one thing — the future of the North Country is undeniably positive.

Kent Backus: “I’m very optimistic about the future because of the confidence I have in our employees. They are really good at what they do and are committed to helping our customers improve their financial position. The region just needs to continue to find ways to expand and grow our private sector jobs.”

“Businesses are prospering in the area and new businesses are moving in,” said DiPasquale. “There are a lot of people who are coming together to solve problems and move Clinton County forward including the Chamber of Commerce, which brings all the players to the table to help retain and attract new businesses. In all the places I have lived, I have never seen a group bring everybody who needs to be there in to recruit a new company to the area.”

“The number one thing that I see is our need for training and education,” said Abdallah. “I had the opportunity to speak to a group of students at Beekmantown Middle School. They are introducing kids to how they can partner with business, getting them started early.”

“We are a very resilient community,” said McCullough. “We have strong, capable leaders like Mike Carpenter and Garry Douglas. We need champions, who will take a stand, advocate, think positively, and deliver that message. We can do better in terms of inclusion, diversity and mental health. I want to continue these conversations around increasing awareness. We need to acknowledge our racism and biases.”

“The airport is a game changer for the community. With the new services being offered by United Express we now can offer business travel options that we could not before. And with the Federal Inspection Station coming on line in the New Year, PBG can grow into international markets. It has really positioned us for growth,” said Kennedy. “We are getting a lot more questions from businesses. They believe in the area.”

“At Coryer Staffing have launched a program called RAMP (Ready, Able, Marketable, Proven) to build support for high school graduates who don’t know what they want to do but are eager to work until they find their path — their direction,” said Coryer. “The pilot program orientation was at Clinton Community College with Mold Rite Plastics being the lead employer. We wanted to get the RAMP participants on campus, creating a connection with the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and the college and into a company where there is enormous opportunity all around them. While our pilot program is small, we have an incredible number of seniors across our region who have expressed interest in participating in RAMP when they graduate in 2019.”

“There is a SUNY Plattsburgh initiative spearheaded by President John Ettling and Chief of Staff Ken Knelly to create a community coalition to address issues of inclusiveness and diversity,” explained Bernardi. “People come to visit our area and sometimes they don’t feel welcome here. I think this is something that we as a community can improve.”

“I think the very fact that we are all here to discuss the future of the North Country is reason in and of itself to feel optimistic about the future,” added Parkinson. “We aren’t immune to national concerns like the opioid epidemic and how it taxes the justice system. But by working together as a community to battle addiction and coming up with innovative solutions like the vision we have for the MHAB life skills campus we can have a positive impact.”

As our discussions wound down there was agreement that the North Country’s future looked bright with regard to business and growth and that there was a firm foundation to build upon. While the region got a “Needs Improvement” on its report card with regard to inclusion and acceptance, there was a strong desire for the kind of leadership that is willing to engage in a dialogue around these tough subjects.