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From left, State Sen. John Bonacic, Bassett Healthcare president and CEO Dr. William Streck and Assemblyman Peter Lopez are seen at the opening of Tri-Town Regional Hospital in Sidney on Feb. 5. (Star file photo)

Economic turmoil nationally and uncertainties about government budgets have prompted yellow flags at the 2009 starting gate, some local business and health officials said.

``Everybody is very cautious,'' said Carolyn Lewis, Otsego County economic developer.

However, the county committed to a record $850,000 in loans to help more than five businesses start or expand, she said.

``We see that as a positive year,'' Lewis said.

The region's mix of hospitals, health-care providers and colleges, plus locally owned and operated businesses, help insulate the area from high and low tides of economic activity, business officials said.

In the region this year, the business sector reported a mix of layoffs and job opportunities. The health-care sector continued a quest to hire nurses and physician specialists to practice in the area, though hospital administrators are concerned about losses tied to government funding and consumers deciding to postpone treatments.

Next year's local economic picture will be shaded by the mood on Wall Street, the start of Barack Obama's presidency and the wrangling and resolution of adopting a state budget, local business officials said.

Rob Robinson, president and chief executive officer of the Otsego County Chamber, said that for businesses, the year was tight. Consumers, including tourists, reined in spending by eating out less and choosing ``lower-end restaurants,'' he said.

Area businesses, including hospitals, are subject to whatever the state decides on cuts, taxes and fees, Robinson said. The state would be better off if legislators would take a three-to-five-year approach and cut significantly now, then usher in the process of absorbing the impact and initiating rebuilding, he said.

``We're in a critical stage,'' Robinson said.

Mary Beth Silano, executive director of the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce, echoed concerns about the state budget.

In Delaware County this year, many retailers had a slow year, Silano said Tuesday. However, bed-and-breakfast lodges did very well because of their proximity to larger cities and high gasoline prices that curtailed traveling, she said.

For 2009, she said, major business concerns include the impact of the state budget, property and business taxes and the cost of health care.

Businesses need incentives to stay in New York, Silano said. Delaware County officials want to attract businesses to its recently designated Empire Zone, a state program that may need reforming but shouldn't be abolished, she said.

In the last quarter of 2008, Amphenol Corp. and MeadWestvaco, two national firms with plants in Sidney, announced layoffs and staff reductions larger than usual during seasonal slowdowns.

MeadWestvaco Office Products Group announced the elimination of 50 positions at the end of this month. The cuts were in addition to 221 seasonal layoffs among hourly employees. The producer of planning products and calendars has about 1,050 employees.

Amphenol, which makes electronic and electrical interconnect devices, laid off 202 employees between August 2007 and November 2008. The Daily Star reported in May that the Sidney plant employed 1,600.

Meanwhile, a manufacturer on Winnie Hill Road in Oneonta plans to start production early next year.

Renewable Energy Development Inc. will continue hiring for its plant that will produce ultracapacitors, according to Chad Hall, chief operating officer, on Tuesday.

Otsego County this year was awarded a $750,000 grant to help open REDI, which is to hire 124 employees within three years.

Kevin Price, executive director of the Chenango-Delaware-Otsego Workforce Investment Board, said employment grew in the region during the first half of 2008. Though layoffs were major news recently, demand for manufacturing workers, engineers and health-care providers continues locally, he said.

The national economy will be tighter next year, but local employers will fill critical positions, Price said, and jobs are available in manufacturing, quality control, food production and pharmacy.

A.O. Fox Memorial Hospital in Oneonta continues to focus on recruiting physicians, who tend to be lured to urban areas, said Dr. Carlton Rule, executive vice president for medical affairs, on Tuesday. Few if any physicians want to open their own practices, which means financial risk for hospitals, he said. Fox already is struggling economically and awaits the impact of state budget cuts and changing regulations.

``It's a very challenging environment for health care, absolutely,'' Rule said.

Karen Huxtable, spokeswoman for Bassett Healthcare in Cooperstown, said the biggest challenge in 2009 is the state's fiscal picture. Bassett expanded some services this year and is positioned about as well as it can be, she said.

Bassett expansion highlights in 2008 included the opening of the Tri-Town Regional Hospital in Sidney, the addition of a motorcoach that provides cancer screenings and the introduction of robotic-assisted surgery equipment, Huxtable said.

Fox and Bassett officials said they continue talking about identifying possible shared services.

At local public colleges, administrators said previously they are identifying ways to save money, such as holding vacant positions open and turning down thermostats. In the area, some small businesses opened or changed ownership, including some restaurants.

The city of Oneonta continues to struggle with economic development downtown, particularly in resurrecting the former Bresee's property, a retail anchor last century. In August, the city was notified it would receive $650,000 for a downtown project that includes redevelopment of the former Bresee's site, improvement of the Oneonta Theatre, housing rehabilitation and building facade and streetscape improvements. The city has also obtained other grants toward the rehabilitation of the former Bresee's site.

Lewis said that in Otsego County overall, the hospitals, colleges, industries and businesses are generating a sustainable economy. Next year, the focus may be on helping businesses with retention, but other opportunities could develop.

``Hopefully, we've positioned ourselves to be ready for expansion.'' Lewis said. ``Each day tells a different story.''

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Denise Richardson can be reached at 432-1000 or (800) 721-1000, ext. 213, or at. drichardson@thedailystar.com.

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