Looking Forward: What’s The Plan?
Since October of 2020, I have been communicating with the public through this monthly article about all of the great things going on throughout Chautauqua County as they relate to economic development. These commentaries may include discussions about specific projects of public interest that are underway or have been completed, where they are at, and if completed, how they are performing. They may also include discussions about initiatives being undertaken at various agencies or at the County level, including, but not limited to, the County of Chautauqua Industrial Development Agency, the Chautauqua Region Economic Development Corporation, the Chautauqua County Partnership for Economic Growth, the Chautauqua County Department of Planning & Development, the Chautauqua County Land Bank Corporation, the Workforce Development Board, the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau, educational institutions, foundations, or at any one of the many agencies whose mission makes them a critical partner in economic development initiatives throughout the County.
May 9 to 15 marks National Economic Development Week, in which communities across the country celebrate positive contributions to economic development and provide and explain the role of the profession in our local community. While my last few columns have chiefly looked back at what our economic development partners accomplished in 2020, we want to take this opportunity to look forward. As we reflect on the past year and the difficulties brought on by the pandemic, what are the key issues that we need to collectively focus on? What are the opportunities we need to seize?
Chautauqua County’s leaders and our economic development partners are not ignoring critical issues such population decline, the availability of a skilled workforce, or the negative impacts brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Just the opposite! Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach or a magic bullet solution for addressing these issues. Take population loss for example – while we are fully aware that this is a major issue that needs to be addressed at the County level (and all levels for that matter), there is no simple fix to this complex issue. I wish there was a switch we could flip that would solve all of our problems; however, this simply is not the case.
Population loss here, which has been occurring since the 1970s, is not unique to Chautauqua County. This is a systematic issue throughout Western New York and New York State, and is believed to be attributed primarily to high taxes, weather, over-burdensome business regulations, and the perception that there is a lack of good paying jobs here (to name a few).
In recognition that this is a multifaceted issue and that no one partner can address these issues on their own, we developed a public-private economic development collaborative, the Chautauqua County Partnership for Economic Growth, which is taking a comprehensive approach to economic development, and in so doing, has broadened the traditional definition of this multifarious discipline.
If we are to compete with other areas in attracting people to our county, we need to create an environment in Chautauqua County that is attractive to everyone, but especially young professionals.
While we have a low-cost of living, extraordinary natural assets, and planned events/activities throughout the County, I believe we lack in what I would characterize as the “cool” factor. That is, more concentrated and walkable communities; breweries; new, more modern and efficient housing; a critical mass of organized groups for young people; “sexy” businesses that appeal to young people; and more opportunities for young people to stay and work in the multitude of businesses that have open positions (to name a few). Again, this is a complex issue which deserves and requires a long-term and multifaceted strategy, which is one of the primary issues that the economic development strategy is addressing. It’s a big lift!
Through the Partnership, Chautauqua County’s economic development stakeholders are taking bold action to implement a comprehensive, data-driven, and results-oriented economic development strategy for the County. The plan offers ambitious, but achievable actions, and calls for game-changing projects and programs aimed at reversing the stifling economic trends of population loss, net job loss, and stagnant household incomes. Through careful tracking of performance, and by adapting tasks as the plan advances, implementation of the strategy has been designed to move the needle on increasing median household incomes, reducing poverty, and ultimately reversing population loss in our county.
This unique public-private strategy focuses on five key areas: Business Development; Workforce Readiness and Development; Housing; Community Development; and Tourism and Destination Development. This approach is in recognition that these five areas are not only equally important, but intertwined, and several initiatives need to occur simultaneously if we are to be successful in reversing decline. Not only that, advancement in one area will surely breed success in another.
The Business Development Work Group encompasses a multitude of partners from business support entities to municipal officials who are working collaboratively to ensure Chautauqua County fosters a positive environment for the creation and expansion of small and large businesses, the preparation of development-ready sites, and extension of needed infrastructure throughout the county. The partners are working to help businesses grow, expand, locate, and thrive in Chautauqua County, and has identified core sectors that should be targeted in order to optimize key assets and amenities.
Ensuring that Chautauqua County’s businesses and not-for-profits have access to a qualified workforce is vital to their productivity and the future of our economy. As such, workforce training and the availability of skilled labor is a critical component of the county’s economic development strategy. Partners involved in the Workforce Readiness and Development Work Group are acting collaboratively to make every effort to do what is necessary to prepare the future workforce, as well as further develop the current workforce. This is much harder than it might seem on its face! Childcare is a big issue, as is transportation, work ethic, and many other factors.
Creating a diverse mix of safe and well maintained housing options throughout the County is critical to the future of Chautauqua County. The county has a glut of old housing that isn’t necessarily conducive to the lifestyles of young or retired people. The Housing Work Group is engaging and supporting municipal leaders, housing agencies, investors, homeowners, and tenants through projects that will ultimately improve the County’s housing stock and continue to remove blight. Specific projects have been identified, and when fully implemented, will ultimately result in the provision of a diverse range of housing stock to meet the demands of today’s workers and active adults. Again, this is a challenging prospect, and is not something that is going to happen overnight.
Chautauqua County encompasses many small, agricultural-based towns that possess unique rural character and charm. These historic downtowns and lakeside communities have “good bones,” which is one of the assets that can be beneficially exploited to becoming attractive centers of activity and commerce. By convening partners and providing support and technical assistance, the Community Development Work Group is seeking to create healthy, vibrant, walkable communities, characterized by thriving downtowns and enhanced waterfronts. This, too, is a lofty goal; however, we are up to the challenge one community at a time.
Fully capitalizing on the County’s renowned tourism offerings and abundant outdoor recreation attractions is, no doubt, a central component of Chautauqua County’s economic future. The Tourism and Destination Development Work Group is working collaboratively to break down silos and more broadly promote unique experiences and destinations throughout Chautauqua County to increase visitor stays and spending, while also encouraging private businesses and entrepreneurs to invest in the themes of these assets.
In addition to these collaborative efforts, our economic development team is working closely with County Executive Wendel on several other economic development priorities in 2021. These include:
¯ Assist businesses, Not-for-Profits, agencies, and other institutions to fully resume operations and offerings following the negative consequences wrought by the pandemic;
¯ Revise and implement the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for Chautauqua Lake, which lays the groundwork for cooperation of key stakeholders in management of the Lake, and has a 2-year term;
¯ Establish “CHQ Scientifica”, a national research Hub on Chautauqua Lake, which will integrate research professionals and programs into a collaborative center for researching and addressing major water quality issues affecting Chautauqua Lake and its reservoirs, especially the mitigation of harmful algae blooms;
¯ Develop a “County Airport’s Strategic Plan” in-house, which will re-think what the function of the airports should be and what customers they should be serving, based on existing assets, locational advantages, current and future customers, and other relevant factors;
? Develop a tourism transportation shuttle connecting major tourism venues throughout the county, including hotels, wineries, breweries, and other key attractions;
? Work closely with the CCIDA, CCPEG, CCVB, WDB, and other stakeholders to develop and implement a proactive Talent Retention and Attraction initiative, along with other parallel efforts, to assist businesses in retaining existing employees, filling open positions, and attracting new businesses;
? Purchase and/or control key parcels, both greenfield and brownfield sites, for future development, along with advancing the needed infrastructure, so we have more development-ready sites to drive and meet future demand; and
? Seek additional resources and establish partnerships to extend broadband internet coverage throughout the County, especially to rural areas that are unserved or underserved.
Like most rural counties, we face some very difficult economic challenges; however, I believe our partners are up to the challenge. We are continually reminded of Chautauqua County’s incredible assets and the dedicated partners and individuals working every day to make Chautauqua County a better place to live, work, visit, and conduct business. Dozens of organizations, agencies, municipalities, educational instructions, and non-profits are working diligently through a unity of effort. To them, we say “Thank You!”
To learn more about the Partnership for Economic Growth, the Chautauqua County Economic Development Strategic Plan, and priority initiatives, please visit chqpartnership.org. Please also follow us on Facebook @CCPEG, especially during economic development week, as we recognize our partners, outline our priorities, and showcase success stories.
Mark Geise is Chautauqua’s Deputy County Executive for Economic Development, and CEO of the CCIDA.