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FACING CHALLENGES & FINDING POSITIVE OUTCOMES

Updated: Dec 8, 2023


Forum

The Strictly Business Forum is an annual event where area leaders from across the North Country get together to discuss the year in detail. This was the 32nd time this special event took place and I was privileged to moderate a cross section of community titans. Linda Bourgeois: President & CEO U-First Federal Credit Union Greg McConnell: Vice President/ CFO The Champlain Technology Group Sarah J McCoy: Director of Plant Operations, SterRx LLC Alexandra Barie: Licensed NYS Associate Broker CDC Real Estate Elizabeth Pearl: MPT- Owner Pearl Physical Therapy Billy Jones: NYS Assemblyman NYS 15th District Michael Carpenter: President & CEO The Northeast Group After welcoming remarks and the opportunity to visit virtually, we took up our first question. How did your company do in 2021? Greg MacConnell, “We did extremely well with both the state and federal governments ramping up fiber for home grants and contract awards to expand broadband in our area. We’ve got over 100 years of telecom construction experience, the last 25 specializing on fiber optics. We have enjoyed steady and increasing demand for our services.” Elizabeth Pearl also reported growth with increases in both business and revenue. “We added two additional physical therapists and one full time administrative assistant which helped us serve more clients and diversify our rehabilitative and wellness offerings.” Alex Barie was also enthusiastic “Our business was excellent in large part because several local businesses continued their expansion. Despite the effects of the pandemic, our local economy continues to grow and prosper.” Linda Bourgeois’ insight was positive and informative. “The year was interesting, as we continued to serve our members and the community while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The additional unemployment benefits in 2020 and 2021, along with the stimulus payments, have created an unusual amount of excess liquidity. Managing our balance sheet, coupled with low interest rates, has made our business challenging. Margins have been squeezed and management and Boards of Directors have been conservative when making decisions. We are well capitalized. NCUA considers a net worth of seven percent or above to be a well-capitalized credit union. U-First is consistently in the double digits.” Mike Carpenter and Sarah McCoy shared positive year end reviews with an appreciation for their valued employees. According to McCoy “We are an innovative 503B outsourcing company and the pandemic increased the demand for certain pharmaceutical products. We had to work quickly to determine how we could keep moving forward and I am pleased to report that we were able to do just that.” Carpenter expressed his appreciation for the employees at The Northeast Group. “We enjoyed a reasonable bump year over year. The second half really ratcheted up, but supply chain interruptions created huge bottlenecks. It created an ask and expectation by our customers to perform extraordinary miracles to help get their goods to market — goals that our team met and exceeded.” Billy Jones’ remarks summing up the past year the North Country went through — personally, professionally and regionally. “It’s been an active year dealing with various state issues and helping constituents’ small businesses navigate state bureaucracy, and meeting with constituents and organizations.” Next our discussion shifted to positive changes that have been implemented as a result of the pandemic. The overwhelming theme was employer flexibility. U-First’s Bourgeois shared, “We haven’t made any permanent changes to our business as a result of the pandemic, but it has opened our eyes to the ability to conduct meetings virtually. While I firmly believe face to face is better, the virtual option offers greater flexibility. According to McCoy, SterRx was able to maintain production, but faced supply chain issues. The company closely monitored inventory levels and identified alternate vendors to assure necessary materials were available.” She described an initiative that began organically that management is happy to continue. “We have kindness baskets in our employee break room so if someone is hungry, they can grab something. Leave what you can, take what you need. The original small act of kindness has grown to offer not only those dealing with food insecurity, but through employees’ generosity offerings have grown to include warm winter clothing and items for children and families. Carpenter explained, “We are a labor heavy industry so getting our people to work is critically important. We developed a robust COVID management policy to insure we did not have an outbreak that took out a significant portion of our staff and so far, we have been successful. We are especially proud of the health savings accounts we have established. We have found that our people use the health insurance more because they have no out of pocket costs. That has helped to create a healthier work force.” Pearl described some of the initiatives that have enhanced the practice’s reputation as an employer of choice. “On Wednesdays our team members make a healthy, homemade meal to share at lunch. Outdoor Tai Chi, Telehealth PT visits, and staggered employee start times and client appointment times help to optimize health and safety and help to expedite traffic flow of clients.” She was candid and admitted to some anxiety about what treating patients during the pandemic would look like. “As a team, we laser focused in on our mission to serve others best wellness needs.” MacConnell indicated, “The pandemic has required more flexibility and acceptance from our staff and management alike. The implementation of remote work happened much more easily than anticipated and it, and video conferencing will continue in the future.” The advantages of being able to schedule meetings without having to account for geography presented unique opportunities for Assemblyman Jones. “We found creative ways to reach out to constituents and hear about the issues that are important to them. Zoom has become the new reality that has helped our office keep in touch with people across the North Country and New York. But it has also made our lives busier since many events that we might not have been able to attend because of distance or scheduling are now available virtually.” Barie explained that, despite the pandemic, not much had changed in the real estate business. “Understandably most investors insist on a physical visit to examine a property in person, but we do utilize Zoom whenever possible, and follow protocols with respect to masks and distancing” Our group was in unanimous agreement about the challenges facing the North Country. Jones summed up the three factors driving the labor market, “Transportation, housing and childcare.” As the group shared their concerns, Jones offered, “The US-CAN border closure has also been challenging for our region.” The access to broadband is being remedied as fast as the industry’s labor shortage will allow. According to MacConnell, “Currently, the greatest challenge to the North Country is the attraction and retention of a competent labor force.” Bourgeois echoed the concerns about a sustainable workforce and highlighted the pandemic shining a light on the importance of getting broadband out to all areas of the North Country. Barie shared, “The North County suffers from workforce shortages, but unlike other areas, our region continues to be proactive. A number of initiatives, designed to improve and expand our workforce, have been launched by organizations such as the Advance Institute of Manufacturing, the North Country Chamber of Commerce, Clinton Community College, the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, Coryer Staffing, . Another challenge CDC Real Estate faces is the lack of industrial real estate space in our area. In my ten years of practice, I have never seen inventory this low. With the cost of construction still very high and rental rates still very low, combined with an increased demand, our inventory is all but depleted. Many large companies in our area are contemplating the construction of new facilities in the coming years to meet the growth demand of their businesses. If this expansion occurs, we may see some relief in the market place. Until then, we will have to be creative with the space we have available.” Barie continued, “There just aren’t enough bodies and maybe it is time — without pulling us into a political direction — that we start talking about immigration reform.” With North Country unemployment under five percent locally, Barie’s suggestion received a swell of support. Our group acknowledged regulations governing community and neighborhood in-home based childcare are logistically prohibitive for providers and parents alike, which leaves both parties with limited options. An innovative solution came from Bourgeois, “I’ve always been a fan of win-win situations. My thought is that nursing homes would be great places to establish childcare centers. I think it would lift the spirits of the residents and allow little one to interact with senior citizens.” Taking another look at the impact of government regulations, Carpenter spoke about the legalization of marijuana at the state but not the federal level. “It is going to create tremendous problems for employers. We have not begun to see the fallout yet, but the problems of testing, accidents, etc. are coming. As we wound up our discussion, the idea of what to do to ensure a prosperous future for the North Country was highlighted by Bourgeois’ innovation and informed optimism. “I believe the North Country is on the right track. Our Chamber of Commerce is second to none in economic development and tourism. We have excellent institutions of higher education. Our location is superb. We are the manufacturing hub for transportation companies and the companies that support them. Plattsburgh was chosen as one for the top 25 cities in the Americas for foreign direct Investment. We live in a beautiful part of the country.” Those thoughts were echoed by others. Barie said, “While there is always room for improvement, I would argue that we continue to pave the way for the survival and success of business in our area. This is evidenced by our community’s continued growth despite the economic hardships we have faced in recent years. It is important, however, to continue building and strengthening the relationship with our friends to the north. It is also crucial to engage and encourage the younger generation to get involved and see what our area truly has to offer with respect to career choices and the quality of life. Lastly, I think we need to continue working together as a community, to increase economic development within our area whether it be through projects such as the DRI or an expansion at the Plattsburgh International Airport or our local colleges working together to help students meet their goals. Teamwork is an essential ingredient when it comes to the success of our area.” McCoy added, “In order to create a prosperous future the area needs to continue to be developed so that is attractive to not only businesses but employees.” MacConnell recalled the resilience of the North Country as evidenced initially in the Base closure of ’93. “Recently, the pandemic offered similar challenges, but with the assistance and capable leadership of local officials and our North Country Chamber of Commerce, businesses were supported and promoted during this time of economic stress.” Pearl’s contribution centered on, “Developing downtown and our waterfront areas. Showcasing and creating businesses on the water and in the mountains. Developing a robust indoor sports complex with a variety of activities such as soccer, tennis and pickleball and an outdoor community ice rink. Jones emphasized, “The North Country needs to keep the momentum on economic development to have a prosperous future and continue to foster the transportation manufacturing sector to help other businesses and workers prosper. Adapting the workforce to fill jobs in the manufacturing sector and focusing on educational programs at BOCES campuses, IAM at Clinton Community College and North Country Community College. Building out broadband is another key issue that needs to be addressed in order to bring more people to the region and to help local businesses stay competitive. Affordable housing for the North Country’s workforce also needs to be expanded so that workers are able to afford to live where they work. Addressing the region’s challenges is critical to securing the North Country’s prosperous future.” Carpenter offered an inclusive summation of the question, “Continue our efforts to create a community that embraces societal differences and eliminates stigma in all arenas. If we can do that, we will do alright!”

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