County hopes to grow economy with all-of-the-above approach
Kate Sofis grew up in the Buffalo area and then moved west, where she’s spent most of her adult life. This week marked her first visit to Allegany County. The same can be said for Marcia Kadanoff. Like Sofis, she’s currently based in San Francisco.
So, what does a newcomer find when they discover Allegany County?
“We were stunned by the beauty of the place and the beauty of the people,” Sofis said. “While there may be some challenges you’re going through, we can see from just two steps away the strength this community has. The buildings you have, the Main Streets, the fact the towns themselves are each little pearls. They’re all different. From a visitor or future resident’s perspective, they’re little pearls on a necklace. They make this area really distinct.”
Sofis and Kadanoff are Maker City consultants. They spent three days this week touring the county, getting to know its people, its challenges and its potential. The visit comes at a pivotal point in the county’s history. Several hundred high-paying jobs at the Siemens Dresser-Rand facility could vanish over the next few years. Efforts to mitigate those job losses continue, but the prospect of losing the county’s anchor industry has community leaders exploring all avenues to grow the area’s economic base.
Enter Maker City.
The “Maker Movement” seeks to foster entrepreneurship and economic development from the ground up, encouraging innovation and exploiting synergies for growth in a community. Think start-ups, rather than Starbucks — although a small business that starts local and grows into a global giant, while maintaining its hometown headquarters, would be a dream scenario.
Maker City officials were invited to the area by the Allegany County Economic Development Steering Committee (ACEDSC).
“This was made possible through Siemens Dresser Rand working to develop the visit by engaging Maker City with the ACEDSC over the past year, with funds from Siemens Dresser Rand, Ljungstrom–Arvos, Otis Eastern, Allegany County Economic Development Office, Greater Allegany County Chamber of Commerce, Alfred State College and Alfred University supporting the project,” said Allegany County Industrial Development Agency Executive Director Craig Clark.
During their stay, Sofis and Kadanoff met with county government officials, along with leaders in local business and education. They conducted co-creation sessions to define what the future of Allegany County could be, writing the potential headlines of tomorrow and then brainstorming the priorities to pursue moving forward.
“The economy of the future in Allegany County — say in 2020 and beyond — depends a great deal on what we as a community do today, to get ready,” Clark said.
Four transformative goals for the future
During the discussions, four key themes emerged around big picture subjects that could be transformative for the county's future.
1. Marketing and branding — telling the story of Allegany County to keep and attract the county’s youth. Included in this effort is inspiring “native sons and daughters” who have succeeded elsewhere to return to the area. These leaders can spur growth and investment in their hometowns.
“The tenor in the room was that we have a lot of assets here, and we’re not doing a good job internally within the county of talking up our own stuff, the great things that are going on here, the quality of life, the lifestyle, the friendliness of the people, the fact that people help each other out,” Kadanoff said. “These are some of the themes that emerged.”
2. Developing young professionals — in line with the first goal, the county seeks to create an environment that allows new generations to succeed and put down their own roots in the community. This outreach includes students and alumni from the three area colleges.
Ideas were explored to make the county more attractive to young professionals. The prospect of turning some of the county's decommissioned school buildings into housing and/or business incubators was explored.
“What blew me away was affordability here,” Kadanoff said. “A study just came out about San Francisco, where the average family needs an income of $335,000 to buy a house. I just did work in Kansas City where the average family needs $175,000 to be able to buy in the inner city or the suburbs around the city. That’s a lot. We talk to young people all the time who say I can’t start a family, I can’t get married because I can’t afford a house. People are delaying starting a family later and later.
“Here you have wonderful housing stock, a wonderful environment where someone could start a family, put down roots and see their kids walk to school. It’s the American dream.”
3. Developing a better look for the county – through improving the housing stock, renovating and repurposing existing structures, and volunteer campaigns organized within the community.
The effort hopes to make the county more visually appealing for visitors as well as current residents.
“Your building stock is amazing. Your downtowns are amazing,” Sofis said. “You focus on engaging programs that would encourage volunteerism. There’s a national program called Rebuilding Together that brings in volunteers and sponsor businesses to work with homeowners and businesses to upgrade and clean up their properties. They have an office in Olean.”
4. Perhaps most importantly, work on developing an entrepreneurial community and an innovation economy.
Sofis said the county is well-positioned with three colleges within its borders and a strong, talented community of artists and artisans. The region also has a skilled industrial workforce at places like Dresser-Rand, among others.
“Connecting the high tech and the advanced with the lower tech and the artisans and trades, is actually a really nice balanced economy to aspire to. I think often communities think they have to become all of one thing or another, and in some ways your great opportunity is to connect the two,” Sofis said. “Maybe the most obvious example is with ceramics. You clearly have an advanced ceramics capacity that’s one of the only of its kind in the country. You’re also surrounded with artists who are making beautiful pieces you could imagine being sold in a retail store in New York City. If you look at how to build those clusters and connect them together, it’s authentically you. To me, that’s the exciting thing. You have some authentic things here that nobody else has. How can you build on them?”
Along those lines, Allegany County's outdoor recreation, hunting and fishing opportunities were pointed to as a growth opportunity.
"Can we take folks from the college and encourage them to start businesses around some of the recreational opportunities?" Kadanoff asked. "That could be transformational as far as bringing in people regularly to experience the joys of the county and transform them into lifelong lovers of Allegany County who actually move here and establish businesses and families."
The Maker City goal is to build an environment and infrastructure where innovation is happening every day.
“One of our key initiatives is to have more of an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs and professionals," Kadanoff said. "Building on the three colleges and making it so the colleges create entrepreneurs or young professionals that want to stay in the area, and we nurture them in a building that is a joint Maker space, which is where you hands-on make things with equipment, you have an incubator for new businesses, and you also have a co-working space, making high bandwidth internet available there, and programing to bring in experts from within and outside the community to help people build fledgling businesses.
"When you start a new business from the ground up, it’s very lonely. Having that ecosystem of support is critically important."
The county is taking an all of the above approach to economic growth, encouraging start-ups in the Maker model while also hoping to attract — and retain — large established businesses.
"We will also continue to work on keeping and attracting businesses to the region. We also discussed methods to work with Siemens Dresser Rand on working to find ways to keep employees in the region through these efforts," Clark said. "We also continue to work with Siemens Dresser Rand and Curtiss-Wright on options on ways to also keep jobs and people in the area. This includes working with Gov. Cuomo, Senator Schumer, Congressman Reed, Senator Young and Assemblyman Giglio as well as Allegany County legislators, Mayor Randy Shayler and Supervisor Shad Alsworth."
Now that the county has some over-arching goals, the focus moves to making them reality.
"Hopefully that’s the value we brought to the community, bringing in some outside best practices and then galvanizing the community to vote and caucus for the ideas they feel will be most transformative to them," Kadanoff said. "We'll be creating a report to detail next steps. Craig’s taking lead on creating committees around four big initiatives. Committees will roll up their sleeves and do the work. We will provide short term action plans and metrics just to keep everybody focused."
Clark and the team are targeting those goals while still pushing for a positive outcome on the Dresser-Rand front.
"Next steps will be working with the greater community, including the through the ACEDSC, on four main themes that include Telling the Allegany story through both the internal and external communities, working with our Young Professionals to assure we develop and keep our youth in the county from high schools through the three colleges, developing our community housing and amenities that include developing Allegany Pride, and lastly assuring we develop an entrepreneurial system to build and support an innovation economy," he said.
While the Dresser-Rand decision is ultimately out of the hands of anyone with an Allegany County zip code, other decisions made locally can reverberate in the future.
"Once you develop a more vibrant small system of people and companies, then suddenly the big companies want to move here because their workers like the lifestyle and diversity," Sofis said. "They like they can walk down your Main Street and have this eclectic mix of stuff. One definitely feeds the other over time."