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May 9, 2013

County to lose its economic playmaker

By Joe Mahoney Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — COOPERSTOWN — After more than 12 years on the job, Otsego County Economic Developer Carolyn Lewis said Wednesday she will be leaving her position Aug. 9 in order to devote more time to raising her three children.

Since joining county government in October 2000, Lewis has been a central part of many of the biggest business developments that have taken place in the region, and has sought to aggressively market the region to companies looking to expand their operations.

“I’m finding that it’s more important to my family right now for me to be at home,” said Lewis, 42, a mother of children ages 5, 8 and 10.

As both the county’s economic developer and the administrator of the Otsego County Industrial Development Agency, Lewis has played a key role in the Bresee’s Redevelopment Project in Oneonta. The building at 155-165 Main St. — once home to the department store — is being converted into commercial spaces on the first floor and dwelling units on the upper floors.

The county, she said, has an appeal to those seeking to start or grow existing businesses, and she said she hopes it can be successful in the often highly competitive business of attracting new business.

“We have a shovel-ready industrial site that has good transportation access; we have a strong work force; we have two colleges and a strong health care industry, and the downtowns in Cooperstown and Oneonta,” she said. “People really do look at the importance of the downtowns and the quality of life tat they provide for the communities.”

Rep. Betty Anne Schwerd, R-Burlington, the chairwoman of the county’s Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, said Lewis has been a diligent and dedicated economic developer despite the fact many of her colleagues in other counties are paid far more than the $48,500 a year salary.

“If we’re going to promote economic development in this county, we have to invest more money,” said Schwerd, noting she is perhaps the most fiscally conservative member of the county board.

“We are going to have very big shoes to fill here,” Schwerd said, pointing out that Lewis’ skills have been recognized by the Cuomo administration, which invited her to participate in its regional economic development councils.

Representatives of several businesses that have been assisted by Lewis said they appreciated her efforts to widen opportunities for local entrepreneurs.

“We’re very sorry to hear that Carolyn is going to be going,” said Larry Bennett, spokesman for Brewery Ommegang in Middlefield, one of the largest private employers in the county.

Larry Althiser, operator of Larry’s Custom Meats in Hartwick, said Lewis played a pivotal role in the launching of his business in 2011.

“If it wasn’t for the work she and her agency did, this project wouldn’t have been done,” said Althiser, who overseas both a USDA-approved slaughterhouse servicing local farmers as well as a retail shop. In two years, he said he has gone from four employees to 12. “She looked at our project and saw the potential it had for creating jobs,” Althiser said. “It’s a sad thing that she’s leaving.”

Joseph Bernier, the chairman of the Otsego County IDA, said Lewis was a catalyst who helped shepherd numerous projects, including moving Oneonta-based ultracapacitor maker Ioxus into the building that once housed the National Soccer Hall of Fame. She was also instrumental last year in lining up the IDA assistance that helped Springbrook expand into the former St. Mary’s School building in Oneonta, a structure with 52,000 square feet.

‘Those are two big places that are no longer vacant” Bernier said.

Lewis, he said, has devoted long hours to her mission, and like other supervisors of county agencies, has gone without a pay raise for six years.

“She is just the kind of person who is really committed,” he said. “She is hands-on, and she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty. I’ve seen her out lining soccer fields in spring and picking up garbage in the fall.”

Schoharie County Treasurer William Cherry said a productive economic development office can pay off in spades for those counties that invest in them.

“I don’t think it makes sense to be penny wise and pound foolish when it comes to economic development,” Cherry said. “It’s critically important. I think it ties in with the health of a county’s economy and its tax base.”

Lewis said she has found her job to be very rewarding and satisfying, and noted she has enjoyed working with the many businesses who have sought guidance from her.

“The shops you see are owned by local people who own houses and pay taxes and put their kids in schools,” she said. “I really hope that people will continue to embrace and support our business community across the board — from our large manufacturers to our small start-ups — because they are really the economic development people. They are the ones who are creating the jobs and investing here on a daily basis.”