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North Country Regional Economic Development Council sticks to its plan

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POTSDAM — The leaders of an economic development task force said they believe they will maximize their chances to receive competitive state funding by adhering to last year’s successful strategy.

The North Country Regional Economic Development Council met Friday on SUNY Potsdam’s campus to discuss its priority projects for 2012 and the implementation progress of its 2011 projects.

“In our second year, we’re following our strategic plan,” said Anthony G. Collins, council co-chairman. “You can expect the same strategy where we fund a number of small projects which collective build toward the council’s vision.”

In 2011, the council adopted a strategy focused on increasing and retaining jobs in the biotechnology, clean energy and tourism industries as well as value-added agriculture and manufacturing. The plan emphasized work force development; encouragement of research and entrepreneurship; development of a north country brand; a boost to tourism infrastructure; increased agribusiness, and modernization of the energy grid coupled with efficiency. The council also prioritized increasing and improving the housing stock around Fort Drum.

“How are we going to win this round? We’ve stuck to our plan,” said Mr. Collins, who also is president of Clarkson University. “If you couple that we’ve implemented successfully almost all of our projects, you have to like our chances.”

The plan won the north country $103,159,141.34 in economic development funding, second highest among the state’s 10 regions. Of the 60 projects funded, all but two are “on the right track,” according to a report Mr. Collins delivered to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Assistant Secretary of Economic Development Andrew Kennedy, representing Mr. Cuomo at the meeting, said that would weigh heavily in the north country’s favor when awards are handed out toward the end of the fall.

“Last year, it was about strategies; this year, it is about implementing them,” Mr. Kennedy said. “We’re interested in where progress is being made ... regions will be awarded competitive money based on the progress reports.”

The council identified a number of key strategies this year, most of which mirror 2011 efforts. Work force development; retention and expansion of large manufacturers; small-business development; food storage, processing and distribution; clean energy; broadband access; and restored or renewed railroad connections, including high-speed rail between New York City and Montreal, are underscored in the 2012 plan.

In its public session, the council heard from two groups that felt they were being left out of the strategy.

Rachel H. Wallace, vice president of the Potsdam Central School District’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association, asked the council to consider ways to help primary and secondary education.

“North country schools are in crisis and we need your help,” Ms. Wallace said. “If the quality of schools drops due to massive reductions in state aid, people will leave the area. Strong local schools are central to your mission.”

Ms. Wallace said students are losing advanced-placement and extracurricular programs, leading to a decline in the region’s work force.

Mr. Collins said the council could do little directly to improve the school’s funding situation, but an answer might yet be found through economic development.

“A rising tide is going to lift all boats,” he said. “If we get the economy moving, it will increase the tax base and the school’s funding will be restored.”

Co-Chairman Garry F. Douglas, also president of the North Country Chamber of Commerce, said the council would use area universities to help improve secondary education.

“We’re really putting ourselves behind Clarkson’s leadership,” Mr. Douglas said. “The council is part of a couple of initiatives, particularly the STEM Network, which are geared towards education for work-force development.”

The North Country STEM Network, based on Clarkson’s campus, advances science, technology, engineering and math education through advocacy and funding.

Another group expressing its concerns was organized labor, which complained that some of the work on council-endorsed projects was being done by out-of-state or international companies.

“I would like to see some components in this plan for local laborers and local people,” said Ronald Haney, secretary-treasurer of the Central and Northern New York Building and Construction Trades Council. “When I go around to the work sites, I see a lot of out-of-state license plates.”

Mr. Collins said the problem would be dealt with on the state level.

“It’s a classic conflict; I think many in the room believe state funds should be invested locally,” Mr. Collins said. “We were assured steps would be taken to see the steps that could be implemented locally, were.”

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