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SHARED CHALLENGES AND SHARED SUCCESSES

Updated: Dec 8, 2023


Forum

An eclectic group of community and business leaders with extensive experience in business development, government, human resources, education, and technology, gathered for a morning online conversation through Google Meet for the 32nd annual Strictly Business Forum. Their passion for their work and appreciation of our North Country showed through their comments as they shared their many successes, frustrations, and challenges. John Bernardi is the president and CEO of the United Way of the Adirondack Region, a fund-raising and human service organization whose mission is to be a leader in community partnership building and to increase the organized capacity of people to care for one another. As the head of a major North Country nonprofit, Bernardi’s instinct during the pandemic was to “step out into the fray and put our organization right in front in terms of what needed to be done.” He saw 2021 as an opportunity to provide more services and support to people throughout the region and increase the United Way’s partnerships and collaboration with school communities, other non-profits and county agencies. Douglas Hoffman is the senior partner in the Hoffman Eells Group of CPAs in Plattsburgh and Lake Placid, the largest accounting firm in the North Country. For Hoffman and his company, 2021 was a difficult year that they were happy to survive. It was a stressful tax season because procrastinators took advantage of the extended due dates, and they had to help clients with the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program and employment retention credits. Because of the pandemic, “many of our team were working at home for the first time. Some of them worked very well remotely, but others had too many distractions and needed to be in the office.” Sylvie Nelson is the executive director Of the North Country Workforce Development Board, a public-private partnership that provides employment-related services to local businesses and job seekers through a network of regionwide OneWorkSource Career Centers. Nelson said the pandemic “gave us the opportunity to reorganize ourselves and revamp our system, especially with technology because we absolutely had no technology.” As the WDB reopened to serve clients face-to face, it is clear that the Department of Labor, its close partner, has not revamped its services, which has created a Catch-22 situation. Richelle Gregory is the Director of Community Services for Clinton County Mental Health and Addiction Services. She says her agency did a good job transitioning to telehealth during the pandemic. “I think we’re getting better at it although there are vulnerable people where telehealth does not work.” But there has also been a cost, “I think now what we’re facing is burnout from the staff. Telehealth is very difficult to do all the time. Zoom is very difficult to do all the time. You’re almost too accessible now and you don’t get those breaks in between.” Gregory and her staff used to have more time breaks because of travel or their face-to-face appointments. Stacey Ambler is owner of the Cumberland Bay Market and the administrator of her husband, Dr. Kristin Ambler’s medical practice. “We have patients that travel from quite far away, so telehealth has been beneficial. The pandemic has brought a lot of challenges for healthcare, but through frequent Zoom meetings and collaboration it has also brought us together as a medical community.” From the perspective of the market, Ambler is grateful for the way her Cumberland Bay community came together during its pandemic isolation. But she said the store, just like our community, missed our Canadian friends and look forward to welcoming an open border. And going forward, “The cost of goods is really going to be challenging for local restaurants and small businesses like mine. It will become increasing challenging for small business to compete in the marketplace.” Bill McColgan is the president and CEO of Mountain Lake PBS, the public television station that serves Clinton, Essex, and Franklin counties plus parts of Quebec. McColgan cited the lack of broadband availability for many people as a major challenge as they explore new ways to engage online. The situation with their Canadian audience has also been difficult during the pandemic because of the lack of direct engagement and events they usually do in Montreal. But at the same time, “partnerships have been particularly important as we find ways that we can help each other deliver our messaging and make sure that we are working together to serve the widest variety of people.” Dr. Mark Davey is the district superintendent of Champlain Valley Educational Services, its CV-Tec division, and the regional BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services) which includes sixteen school districts. Davey says that because of the pandemic, “We’ve moved into the 21st century with schooling, we’ve been able to utilize technology and many of our students are able to access virtual instruction.” But he also noted how difficult the situation was for families. “We had a lot of parents who weren’t able to go to work because they needed to stay home and take care of their children when they weren’t able to be in school.” Davey much prefers the current in-person model, “We’re all wearing masks and we’re all social distancing, but it’s now down to three feet. Primarily our cases have not spread significantly in schools. Covid spread mainly through community interactions such as birthday parties, weekend sleepovers, weddings, and other family events.” Gregory believes Covid has created its own trauma. “We’re going to see a generational trauma very similar to other global tragedies that have happened and then transmitted down to children of the people who survived. My great aunt was still ironing Christmas paper and that was a behavior associated with the Depression. Covid will have its own generational trauma.” Gregory said that the pandemic has also brought the importance of mental health and destigmatization it to the forefront. “Now you’re seeing large influential organizations, governors, you saw the President talk about mental health. I think that’s a change that will stay. I think we were heading in that direction, but the pandemic exacerbated it.” Bernardi said Covid also added a twist to employment, “It’s not about the money as much as it may have been at one time. What people are looking for now is flexibility. Thinking outside the box, in terms about how we staff our operation has been significant and really kind of fun.” For McColgan, working virtually has been a mixed blessing, “I would like to have more of our people back working full-time in the office, but I know that this hybrid model is here to stay. People working from home is important and it has allowed us to have virtual face-toface meetings with a wider variety of folks stretched across our entire region.” Gregory added that the pandemic brought some unexpected twists for her. ”There have been a couple of life-altering changes for me personally as well as the whole community, if not the nation. I attended meetings that I would not have attended before out of necessity or innovation and made some great, long-lasting relationships and connections with people that I never would have.“ Every person in our online group cited the importance of relationships and partnerships in their work and how the pandemic actually improved them. Davey offered, “I had the opportunity over the last decade to get to know a lot of great people and I have worked with many of you, but the amount of expansion, partnership and collaboration that we’ve had in the last year has been amazing. I don’t believe we should go back.” But for Davey, virtual connection across the region still has a big downside — lack of broadband. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I’d say roughly 60 to 70% of our families had it. It’s now in the 80’s, but we still have 20% of our students who don’t have good, dependable access.” For Hoffman, the critical problem facing the North Country, with or without the pandemic, is employment. “We have a very difficult time recruiting and finding qualified candidates and when we do find them, compared to 20, 30 years ago, their attitude and their dedication leaves a lot to be desired. All of a sudden, one day they’re not there and they don’t show up. Some of it may be related to the baby boomers phasing out and there are fewer people behind. A lot has to do with education and getting people up to the level that can handle modern technology. Look at auto repair. It’s not mechanical anymore. It’s electronic and technology. My son runs an auto repair shop. Two years ago, he had six technicians. Right now, he’s down to two and it’s devastating his business.” Ambler thinks the employment problem would be helped by keeping and attracting more people here. “Both our youth and young families need an innovative environment for them to learn and grow and feel connected. We truly live in a special place with our proximity to the Adirondacks, Vermont and Montreal. If we can capitalize on these assets and improve our ability to help people establish the quality relationships it takes to want to stay, we can change the paradigm.” Nelson also emphasized the importance of keeping our youth here, “Because of the declining population and the aging population, we want to make sure that our students are staying in the area.“ To that end, the Workforce Development Board has developed an online interview setup between employers and potential employees. “They don’t spend time on the road getting to the employer. The employer comes into the webinar and with videos, answers their questions, talks about the opportunities, the type of training necessary, and the positions they offer.” Bernardi noted that too many people have been unnecessarily negative about the North Country. I’ll just pick on Plattsburgh for a moment. If you stop 10 people on the street and ask them about moving to Plattsburgh or living in Plattsburgh, a significant number of them would say, ‘Why the heck would anyone want to live here?’ We have to shift that mentality. I could sit here all day and tell you about the reasons we should celebrate the region we live in, but in some cases, we’ve been our own worst enemy.” Hoffman’s didn’t buy the idea of regional negativity, “I for one would never say, ‘Why the heck did you move here?’ I think the area is a hidden gem.” After living in suburban Rochester and Albany, Davey said his daughters don’t want to live anywhere else but the North Country. “Both of them say this is the best environment, that they have made the best friends, and that they are so pleased that they came home to the North Country. This is where they feel at home.” Still, even with a beautiful place to live, Nelson noted that the area’s low wage base makes it difficult to hire and retain good employees. “Old data from 2018 shows a living wage was $22 an hour. I’m sure it’s a little more now because of the inflation that’s going on. Today, when I hear that companies offer $15 an hour, I know that’s not a living wage.” She also noted employment is complicated by the lack of public transportation across the area and a lack of affordable childcare. “Before when you had children, you got a babysitter so you could go to work. It’s not like that anymore. There are no babysitters, there is very little available childcare. It has gone down 900 spots in the past couple of years in the North Country.”

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