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RESPONDING, RESTRUCTURING & RESHAPING

Updated: Dec 8, 2023


Forum

Representing the insurance, commercial real estate, education, tourism, legal, and the non-profit/health care business sectors, my participants at the 32nd Strictly Business Forum shared their experiences and insights regarding how their business did in 2021, what permanent changes they made as a result of the pandemic and ideas on how to meet the challenges the North Country business community faces. Exacerbated by the pandemic, child care, affordable and available mental health treatment, skilled staff, and reliable transportation continue to be significant challenges. However, throughout the vigorous conversation, these business leaders shared their experiences, exchanged ideas, offered advice, and discussed clear-eyed and thoughtful initiatives as we move together into a prosperous 2022. Deena Giltz McCullough, President/CEO Northern Insuring Agency “Our business did a bit better than expected this year,” shared McCullough. “Our talented staff focused effectively on strategic goals. We launched a new web page, and we moved our Glens Falls office to a more visible location with double the space. Hiring and training new employees has gone well for us too. We are currently about 2% over our growth plan.” Throughout the pandemic, McCullough and her staff found that, with two branch offices, virtual meetings work well when everyone is on their own Zoom link (as opposed to several individuals in a room sharing one link). In addition, although she had encouraged people to stay home when they were sick, now with quarantines, remote schooling or family members needing care, the virtual communication option is part of the business’ regular routine. “Several of our staff have effectively adopted a schedule that is a blend of remote and in-person work,” said McCullough. “We know this doesn’t work for everyone, and as such, it is not mandatory. We work with each person to hit on the ‘sweet spot’ of what makes them the most productive and happy.” McCullough observed that recognizing biases, creating a welcoming and inclusive community (through mentorship, for example), and learning how to speak up effectively when we hear others not supporting these goals is important to moving forward into a more prosperous future. “I believe that we need to look out for each other. There will never be enough mental health services. We need to be champions for those who need it. Authenticity and kindness are key.” Robin Pierce, Executive Director, Advocacy and Resource Center Being in the long-term health care business, Pierce and her staff were subject to more restrictive protocols related to the pandemic. They also had to deal with other businesses offering higher pay rates to attract the small pool of qualified applicants available in the North Country. Due to New York State government restrictions, the Advocacy and Resource Center cannot raise its rates, and thus, must cut other costs, consolidate or stop some services altogether to meet budget constraints. “This year was especially challenging for staffing our programs,” said Pierce. “Our vacancy rate is higher than it has ever been. Some of it is due to COVID fatigue, and some of it is related to the number of jobs available with less responsibility and similar rates of pay. In terms of the nature of the work, it is 24/7, and the hours are a big part. Half of the staff isn’t willing or able to work overtime. There is a lack of child care in general, but especially outside of the traditional work hours. It’s been tough.” For the Direct Support Professional positions, working from home is not an option. Responding to safety protocols necessitated by the pandemic, the alternatives the agency has had to implement were to remodel their Day Habilitation Services — making the site-based program much smaller than in the past. The result is that the individuals who live in their homes are provided with day services that allow them to go into the community directly from the homes. Dire staff shortages mean they have also had to consolidate their homes and have more people living together. In addition, they have had to pause some of their community-based programs, such as janitorial and respite services. “We are looking into technology, such as ceiling rails for lifts that will allow us to staff at a lesser level,” explained Pierce. “If technology is there, it can be used as an alternative to a two-person lift. This is just one possibility. Overall, these are not ideal situations for us or for the individuals we work with. We hope that 2022 can ease these challenges.” Kristy Kennedy, Vice-President of Marketing and Business Development, North Country Chamber of Commerce/Adirondack Coast Visitors Bureau In 2021, Kennedy and her staff, was forced to switch their attention away from the closed US/Canadian border, to look at how to foster tourism and marketing in new ways while not turning their backs on their traditional market and demographics. Their efforts resulted in an increase in visitors, many of whom traveled from the Capital Region. The long-awaited opening of the border in late 2021 created a “pent-up demand” from our Canadian neighbors to visit; and therefore, Kennedy expects this to provide a welcome economic boost in the holiday season and winter months ahead. “Tourism is its own economic engine for a region,” explained Kennedy. “It brings an influx of people to the area which then allows us to make the case to businesses for investing here. It not only has a huge economic impact; it creates things to do and enhances the quality of life for everyone in our community. At the core, what we are doing is what our mission has always been, but we are bringing information, resources and events to our members in new ways. And with the border being closed, people have developed an appreciation for Canadian visitors. Kennedy, and others in our group discussed the importance of changing the mentality of “doing what has always been done.” The “silver lining” of the pandemic for the business community is that there is real opportunity to explore different ways of doing business beginning with changing the collective mindset. “We have a very smart and bright group of young professionals in the community who are ready to roll up their sleeves, help and be heard. We need to find ways to mentor this group and get their ideas and energy involved moving forward,” she suggested. Matt Boire, Owner and President, CDC Real Estate CDC Real Estate had a great year in 2021. Since it offers exclusively commercial and industrial real estate with a strong focus on working with Canadian companies, Boire believes that their success this year says a great deal about our local economy. “Although other area real estate firms sell residential properties, CDC prides itself on reminding people that 'We Do Not Sell Homes’; therefore, having a good year with very few new Canadian businesses tells us that our small business and local manufacturing companies have been very busy,” he said. Unlike many other businesses, CDC Real Estate operated pretty much like pre-pandemic times. Most showings still happened in-person except for a few out-of-the-area people who request a FaceTime tour of a property or virtual meetings. Boire, and his fellow Realtors, have found that virtual meetings have grown in popularity and are likely here to stay. Boire, who has 30 years of experience in North Country commercial real estate, explained his belief that in order to experience continued growth, revamping of the property tax structure, an increase in industrial and residential inventory, and a solution to the prevalent labor shortage are needed. “One additional problem is the high cost of construction paired with the lack of existing industrial space in our region. Local and new companies to our region are looking for warehouse space and we are pretty much ‘filled up’ here. We don’t see the problem changing in the short term with lease rates remaining so affordable and building costs being so high. This will bring our lease rates up a bit as several companies may be vying for the same space and/or new construction costs will require a higher lease rate to help the developer afford the project. Also, short term leases are very popular in our market, but I think that companies will be forced to offer a bit more longevity to the landlords. Our region has enjoyed below market lease rates and shorter-term leases as compared to Montreal, Vermont, and the Capital region for many years. That may have to change.” Addressing the labor shortage, Boire echoed the thoughts of others in our group who believe creativity, flexibility and training will help. He offered compliments to local staffing companies, economic development agencies and educational institutions that are trying to plant the “seed” at home and school that trades and manufacturing jobs, are not only needed, but pay well, are rewarding and offer advancement possibilities in our region. John Kowal, Vice-President of Academic Affairs/Administrator in Charge, Clinton Community College Despite the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, Clinton Community College (CCC) continued to offer vital education and training to North Country residents of all ages, and prepare a significant demographic to enter the local workforce. Demonstrating superb ingenuity, beginning in the spring and summer of 2021, CCC began the transition from nearly fully remote delivery of classes and support services to predominantly in person/on campus presence in the fall semester. This coincided with the completion of the Moore Building renovation project — a substantial enhancement to this important administrative and instructional building. In addition, CCC continued with its self-study process required for accreditation in remote mode into the summer of 2021, and has met all the established goals. Its financial stability has also been enhanced by savings achieved through a retirement incentive approach (implemented at the end of 2019) as well as outstanding support from Clinton County and an infusion of federal pandemic relief funds. “CCC continues to build partnerships with businesses, agencies and other educational institutions as part of its strategic plan for 2020-2025,” said Kowal. “Recently, a dual admission agreement between CCC and SUNY Plattsburgh was approved and implemented, the first of its kind for us. We have also formed many significant partnerships beginning with the Veterans Center of South Burlington, Vermont. In partnership with Brilliant Pathways, CCC held a Technology Teacher Day. In partnership with CV-TEC and North Country Community College, CCC held a Junior Experience Day for students interested in the New Visions program. We are especially proud of a very successful North Country Manufacturing Day, planned and organized in partnership with the staffing firm ETS, the North Country Chamber of Commerce, Champlain Valley Educational Services, the Workforce Development Board, The Development Corporation, CITEC Business Solutions, and numerous local manufacturing companies. The event was attended by over 250 high school students from schools across Clinton and Essex County.” Moving forward, and building on lessons learned during the pandemic, CCC has developed and enhanced its capability to provide instruction and services in a more accessible manner. For example, it now offers more online classes, more flex classes in which students can either attend in person or online and a mix of support services like tutoring, library service and academic advisement that can be done in person or through video conferencing applications like Zoom or Teams. “The North Country needs to continue to be business friendly with its thriving manufacturing sector,” explained Kowa. Also, a high priority needs to continue to be placed on meeting the workforce training needs of local manufacturers. Finally, given the physical beauty of the North Country and the economic importance of tourism, government, community, and business leaders need to continue to make protecting our natural resources a high priority.” Jacqueline M. Kelleher, Esq., Partner, Stafford Owens Law This year was extremely busy at the Stafford Owens law firm. According to Kelleher, the business and real estate market was extremely active, and many of their clients needed guidance on emerging and changing legal and regulatory matters as a result of the pandemic. Also, due to the pandemic, they are continuing with a model that allows nearly all employees to work remotely. When asked what would enhance the business community in the North Country, Kelleher mentioned several factors. “Reliable access to broadband, access to affordable (and available) child care, universal Pre-K, and a ‘de-coupling’ of health insurance from the workplace. “Having our health insurance tied to the workplace severely limits the options of people as well as employers,” said Kelleher. “Due to child care needs and other factors, including school-age children doing remote instruction and elderly family members needing assistance, some people would rather work part-time. Also, employers, who must pay to provide health insurance for employees, are under crippling financial constraints. It limits them in who they can hire and what benefits they can offer.” Kelleher agreed with many business leaders that the North Country needs to continue its focus on advance manufacturing and doing business with Canadian companies looking for a U.S. location. Businesses also need to find ways to support child care initiatives so that all people wishing to participate in the workforce have an opportunity to do so.

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