EDITORIAL: Who does CEDC serve?

WHY WOULD 100 or so middle-age and older white people fill a college lecture hall on a sunny Friday afternoon? It was legal and their kids wouldn’t have been embarrassed to know they were there. So they must have meant to be at Columbia-Greene Community College to learn something about the Columbia Economic Development Corporation’s new “Action Plan.” Go figure.

For two hours most of those who attended the public gathering muted their mobile devices (people of a certain age can still resist the digital muse and take pleasure from how much their restraint irritates younger people who can’t) and concentrated on the big screen before them, thrilled by pages of bulleted items, graphs and charts and more graphs and charts. Then they got to comment on the bulleted items and the graphs and charts, too. Disneyworld for economic development nerds!

Does this matter? Probably not, except to people who’d like to have a say in the future of Columbia County.

The Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC) is a non-profit, independent authority created by the county Board of Supervisors and funded by county taxpayers. If you live here full or part time, you’re paying for it. What it does will change your life here regardless of whether you choose to get involved.

The CEDC’s mission has four components (imagine the bullets): “Strengthen the area’s tax base through economic development and job creation; assist businesses to locate and expand within the county; promote Columbia County as a premier spot for both business investment and personal opportunity.” It makes and administers grants and loans to businesses. It has begun to assemble the types of data businesses need to make decisions about locating or expanding here. And in the recent past, when it wasn’t watched closely enough, it got itself into trouble.

It now has new management–although the CEDC board is looking for a permanent president/CEO to replace the intentionally interim chief, F. Michael Tucker–and its new bylaws provide the tools for a much more open and responsive agency to emerge. The meeting last week at the community college was another positive step in the process of reform and reorganization. It detailed the potential strengths of a new CEDC and hinted at how much work lies ahead.

The Big Ideas raised at the meeting by audience members covered familiar territory: finding workers in a county with an official unemployment rate of 3.5%, the second lowest in the state; the lack of broadband digital access; the threat posed by online mega-businesses like Amazon; outdated infrastructure; no local public transportation; taxes, fees and regulations (as in, too much…); inadequate affordable housing; and the ageless lament that we can’t attract or retain young people.

Among the specific suggestions: creating a brand for the county; more walking trails and access to the Hudson River; a late train back to New York City from Hudson; better signs to guide visitors; and answering the question, “Why are people from Brooklyn moving here?”

But there was one concern that stood out as fundamental to a thriving economy that might not fit the mold–the lack of a “pipeline from education to the workforce.” The Questar III BOCES facility in Greenport and the college both have vocational programs, but public school enrollment continues to decline overall in the county, a factor that does not bode well for future economic growth. At the very least it’s a reminder that every student matters.

And that brings up the observation of Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-106th), who attended the session and, looking around the lecture hall, noted that she was “disappointed that the diversity of this county is not represented in this room.” There was no refuting her.

The population of Columbia County is older than the state and national median age, and far less racially diverse, so it’s little wonder the profile of the audience mirrored that reality. But no amount of brainstorming exercises and strategic planning will lead to lasting improvements in the economy unless everyone who lives here has a stake in the outcome and knows it.

The CEDC can take pride in last Friday’s meeting. Based on where the organization was a year ago, the gathering represents remarkable progress in re-establishing public trust. But the CEDC now risks becoming a victim of its own success unless it devises culturally responsive ways to reach communities untouched by its programs. How would the residents of these communities know about this latest effort and why should they care?

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