On March 3, 2016 I was named Chairman of the Board of Otsego Now, which really means jointly chairing the boards of the County of Otsego Industrial Development Agency (COIDA) and Otsego County Capital Resource Corporation (OCCRC). Otsego Now is probably the most effective economic development resource in Otsego County, based on the tax incentive and bonding tools at its disposal, as well as the property, money, professional staff, and engaged board that are all focused on making the county a better place to work and live. Otsego Now Board Chair sounds impressive, but most people don’t realize that it is an unpaid position that never makes everyone happy and, more often, just draws criticism and occasional outrage. Here’s a Daily Star article and a press release. So, why am I doing it?
Economic Development Matters
I have been working with Economic Development folks since I first got involved with business incubators back on 2000. At the time, I was just interested in finding early stage technology companies that might need legal services. But as I got to know economic development professionals, attend their conferences and events, and really understand what they were up to, I was amazed. It is difficult and largely thankless work. Economic development folks know that when they do things right, the money will go to private companies and local governments and the accolades will go to politicians. But when things go wrong, it will be all their fault. They tend to be among the most selfless, hopeful, and helpful people I’ve met, and the really good ones are also incredibly practical, grounded, and relentless. It’s one thing to envision a brighter future, it’s quite another to figure out how it’s going to get done, bring people together to do it, and figure out who’s going to pay for it (and bear the risk of failure).
So, what are these people actually doing? In my experience, economic development is focused on creating and retaining jobs. Beyond that, it comes in lots of different flavors. I started out working in the entrepreneurship and small business part of economic development. The concept there is pretty straight forward, if you can help businesses start and grow, you will create jobs and maybe even achieve some breakout companies that become the major employers. Even if you don’t, small and medium businesses employ half the people in the U.S. and are the most significant creators of new jobs. Small business and entrepreneurship are nice economic development entry points because the perceived need is largely for basic business training, relatively small investments, and access to existing market resources. Of course, given the failure rate of small businesses, it is also slow, speculative, and difficult to sustain work.
As I worked on small business, I also started to realize that business success is tied to all sorts of other things, like:
- quality and availability of your workforce
- availability of industrial and commercial property
- transportation, housing, and infrastructure to support new and existing businesses
- availability of energy, telecommunications, water, and other resources
- supply chains and the tendency of businesses to cluster by industry
- quality of life, amenities, and communities that attract people and investment
- communities, local governments, and groups that support change
Economic Development is Hard
Economic development is extremely complex and intertwined with basic notions of community, identity, economic reality, and social justice. It tends to become political and potentially polarizing. People want economic development in terms of job opportunities, better infrastructure and amenities, and the replacement of decline with hope. Unfortunately, they also don’t want most things to change, impact them personally, or grow in a way they didn’t expect and can’t control. Most people also don’t like the sense that someone else (especially someone from outside their community) is going to make money, change their community, or just get an advantage that they didn’t receive. And there have been plenty examples of development gone wrong, money wasted, and outright corruption to make people skeptical of the claims of a brighter future.
Economic development is fraught with peril from its complexity, unpredictability, and human factors. But it is also a source of hope. I have seen so many areas that have been changed from wasteland to thriving communities. I have worked with people who have been able to make a difference, create jobs, and give back to their communities because of well-timed training, a grant, or a tax break for their investment in growth. Economic development is a tool for encouraging more of what we want to see from our communities: planning, investment, improvement, and, yes, entrepreneurship.
Otsego Now Board Chair Devin Morgan
My reason for taking on Otsego Now board chair is that I want to live in Cooperstown for the rest of my life. I want to watch my community thrive and grow, to go beyond summer tourism and claim a meaningful place in our regional, national, and world economy. I want my kids to have an opportunity to settle in Otsego County with their families someday, not just visit for the weekend. I want to see Oneonta, Utica, and all of Central New York figure out how to balance our agricultural and industrial histories (and decline) with a future that fuses technology, food & beverage, medicine, education, and incredible natural beauty and quality of life.
And I think Otsego Now can play a role in that. We have started helping communities consider their master plans and define their own futures. We are developing places and support to make Otsego County a better place to build or expand a business. We are engaging local stakeholders, helping find more state and federal resources, reaching out to private investors, and working toward regional synergies. (I’m also super excited about the Oneonta Food Innovation District and our pursuit of being the center of the craft beer universe in New York State.) We have a long way to go, but it is a great team off to a great start.
I’m hoping that all of my readers have made it this far and don’t think that I am completely nuts. On the contrary, I’m hoping that you start to understand why economic development matters and might be worth your time and effort. I realize you are probably too consumed with your own business to spend a lot of time on this sort of thing. But if there is a little bit you can use to give back, I would encourage you to look into your local economic development resources and see whether they are looking for board members or other support. Economic development needs more entrepreneurs and actual business owners to get involved. If that isn’t possible for you, then at least take the time to really pay attention to what’s going on with economic development in your community. Be supportive when you can. Challenge and raise questions when things don’t make sense. And try to help people come together to pursue a prosperous future for all.