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December 26, 2013

Area economy remains work in progress

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — The area’s economy is under construction as projects have won state funding and local groups jockey to boost the vitality of the region’s business, commercial and private sectors — and find and promote opportunities for growth next year and beyond.

In 2013, economic initiatives were awarded state backing totaling more than $7 million for projects ranging from downtown Oneonta development to training at Amphenol in Sidney. Projects in Otsego, Delaware, Chenango and Schoharie counties combined municipal, agricultural and business assets to enhance communities identify various districts and market the region in new ways. 

Colleges and hospitals remain employment and economic anchors in the region, with agriculture, light manufacturing, retailing and tourism also taking roles. But empty storefronts and unemployment remain signs of an economic landscape in need of continued grooming. 

New York state’s unemployment rate was 7.4 percent in November 2013, its lowest level since January 2009, according to preliminary figures released Dec. 19 by the state Department of Labor. 

Unemployment for Otsego, Delaware, Chenango and Schoharie counties in October ranged from 6.2 percent to 7.1 percent, according to state data not seasonally adjusted. In January, unemployment in the four-county area was between 10 percent and 12 percent.

In early December, details were released about more than $7 million in funding for projects in Otsego, Delaware and Chenango counties. The mostly economic development awards will support job-creation, business ventures and municipal improvements and enhance quality of life, state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said in a media release. The state awards were through the Regional Economic Development Council program to the Mohawk Valley and Southern Tier areas. 

In November, elected, business and education representatives met in Oneonta at Seward’s invitation for a summit on economic development in Otsego County. The meeting highlighted local assets, such as educational and agricultural resources, and noted the lack of a shovel-ready site that could attract a manufacturer or business seeking an operations location and the need for a “go-to” person or entity to be a contact for resources in the county. 

Seward announced in early December that summit follow-up meetings resulted in a blueprint for Otsego County focusing on a “new path toward future economic growth and prosperity.” 

The conceptual agreement was forged during a meeting with representatives from the Otsego County Development Corp., the Otsego County Industrial Development Agency, the Otsego County Board of Representatives, the town of Oneonta and the city of Oneonta, he said.

The Oneonta Community Alliance, a group without bylaws or authority, continues to meet to promote economic growth. 

“Development” is the operative word for the local economy, Dick Miller, Oneonta mayor and convener of the Oneonta Community Alliance, said recently. Hartwick College and the State University College at Oneonta provide the community with economic stability that doesn’t change radically from year to year, he said. 

But beyond that sector, the local economy is at best holding its own or experiencing a slight decline resulting from a lack of jobs in the private sector, said Miller, a former president of Hartwick College. And the general population locally isn’t feeling the economic rebound reported nationally, he said.

The local summit and meetings throughout the year among economic leaders and advocates are positive steps that have generated valuable discussions, Miller said, and state grant awards this year are good news. 

But the state awards and economic projects are part of defining a long-term approach, without which the community faces a state of economic decline, he said. 

“We have to understand that a lot of work has to be done,” Miller said. “This is a long-term strategy.”

Efforts from previous years continue toward attracting state funding, supporting local entrepreneurship and further establishing Oneonta and the surrounding region as an economic and retail hub. 

Douglas Gulotty, interim chief executive officer of the Otsego County IDA and a business consultant, said he has spoken with officials at about 25 enterprises, principally manufacturers and a few service-oriented businesses, and this year has been busy with economic activities, including expansion in existing and new businesses. Companies are restructuring debt and preserving working capital to be able to market products instead of waiting for demand, he said.

“This year has been a year of gathering and rebuilding,” Gulotty said. “People are positive about the prospects for next year.” 

Gulotty said the national economy is mixed and will continue to be until banks release capital to small businesses. The Bank of Cooperstown’s plans to open a branch in Oneonta is a “fantastic opportunity” not only for that institution but also for local businesses seeking funding, he said. 

The U.S. Commerce Department reported Dec. 20 that the economy grew by 4.1 percent in the third quarter of this year, up from 2.5 in the second quarter. 

The national recovery seems firmly established, Larry Malone, an economics professor at Hartwick College in Oneonta and Second Ward member of the city’s Common Council. However, the temporary shutdown of the federal government this year was “scary,” he said, and the impact of consumer confidence and holiday and seasonal sales remain to be seen.

“What hasn’t recovered are incomes,” Malone said. “Consumer incomes are really lagging.”