EDITORIAL: More to be done

THE WISE MAN returned to Columbia County this week. He was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd far larger than the year before. He showed many slides with numbers that nourish his wisdom. No one can know the future, he reminded his listeners, but the slides tell him the economy should be, ummmm, okay for awhile.

The wise man is Hugh Johnson, chairman of Hugh Johnson Advisors, LLC, an employee owned investment management services firm in Albany. He was the keynote speaker Tuesday, April 24, at the annual meeting of the Columbia Economic Development Corporation (CEDC). The meeting was packed with business people and politicians eager to hear Mr. Johnson’s rapid-fire analysis of recent economic trends and what that tells him about the year ahead in terms of employment: likely to continue its “anemic” growth because of technology and an economy becoming “less labor intensive”; inflation: “not going to see much”; tax cuts: “The public debt is going to get higher” and could drag down economic growth by the year 2020.

And his conclusion? Because “we have further to go in the current cycle” of business growth, it’s “good news for now.” There was applause. Wisdom is always welcome when the news is good.

More good news followed. CEDC, a non-profit organization that supports economic development and job creation in the county, hired Siena College Research Institute to conduct a business survey of Columbia County. Among the findings presented by Professor Don Levy is that 42% of businesses surveyed believe this year their revenues will rise; 39% expect revenues will remain the same. He called those “very strong numbers” compared to elsewhere in upstate New York.

Prof. Levy also said 61% of the respondents expect to be in business in this county 10 years from now. He thought that was a high figure. Looking around the meeting room at Kozel’s restaurant, it appeared as if local business people took that finding for granted.

For all the positive signs, something was missing. You needed only to look around that room to not see it. The audience, guests and staff, more people than have ever before attended a CEDC annual meeting, had come to hear insights about our economy. Almost no persons of color were among us.

This is not the fault of the CEDC. The meeting was free and the public was invited. But what if you don’t own your own business and can’t get time off to attend, or if you hadn’t heard about the services and financial help available from CEDC?

These are not barriers created by CEDC, and the Workforce Development and Education initiatives of CEDC have begun to address these issues with young people in the county. There’s no better place to start.

But remedying a lack of diversity in business ownership and economic development need to be a high profile priority.

As recently as three years ago hardly anyone would seriously have suggested this expanded role for CEDC. The organization was under a cloud for insider deals and for having about as much transparency as a brick wall. But under the leadership of current board Chairman Tony Jones and President Mike Tucker and with new faces and energy on the Board of Directors, the CEDC has been busy transforming itself into a sort of public utility for local business development and job creation.

There were more women than usual at the annual CEDC meeting this week and more that 25% of the CEDC board members are women. That’s another sign of some progress.

The range of projects, businesses and institutions the CEDC assists reflects a new spirit of inclusiveness. It also suggests that this is the right time and CEDC the right organization to develop a high profile minority business growth strategy for this county.

It will take time, commitment and a sustained effort for CEDC to engage with minority communities in the county to find out the best ways to include everybody in what we all hope will be the county’s growing prosperity. And any outreach has to start with the people who are the intended beneficiaries.

CEDC now has the services, resources and the credibility to help just about anyone in the county who has plans to grow a business or who locate a new one here. The only reason to ask CEDC to expand its diversity portfolio is because CEDC has now proved it’s so good at what it does.

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