Investing in its Main Streets the Simplest Way – Through its People

County of Franklin IDA

In northern New York State, the County of Franklin Industrial Development Agency is small but mighty. Growing to a team of four, doubling in size, strength, resources and capacity, this organization knows the way to maximum impact is fostering entrepreneurship in its communities.

Guided by a comprehensive economic development strategy that was developed in 2015, efforts have been made to increase the organization’s capacity and impact. The Industrial Development Agency (IDA) recently merged with the Franklin County Office of Economic Development and together, as Jeremy Evans, Chief Executive Officer of the IDA noted, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

He added, “We’ve gone from two full-time people to four and it’s allowed us to really start doing more, so that’s been our focus from an organizational standpoint: how to grow professionally; grow the number of people we have and leverage all of that expertise and energy to be able to do more than we were able to do in the past.” He makes it clear that this applies especially to leveraging economic opportunities that present themselves.

From a geographical standpoint, Franklin County is blessed. Nature is abundant with beautiful, serene lakes and vistas, the Adirondack mountains, and countless recreational opportunities. Much of the county is home to the Adirondack Park, and there is no question that tourism is an economic driver and a major priority.

Money that stays
“It’s been a tourism destination for 150 years and it is still a great place to visit. So, we are looking at how to translate visits from people – to enjoy the natural beauty and recreational activity of the Adirondacks – into money spent that stays in the community,” said Evans.

While Franklin County does not have interstate access, it does access a network of state highways that connect to Interstate 87, which is more than capable of moving people and goods not only around the U.S., but also into Canada, as the county shares a border with both Ontario and Quebec. Furthermore, there’s plenty of room to put down roots and grow.

Franklin County has three business parks with available space and the infrastructure already in place to support industrial and commercial growth. There’s also broadband internet access, a regional airport and rail access. Yet, it is in the heart of the communities where opportunity for growth is most plentiful.

Based on traffic counts, access and logistics, the downtowns and main streets of the county’s communities make convincing sense as centers of development. Lodging, dining, shopping, and outfitting enterprises; gift shops, tour guides, and the like would all be well-suited to these centers, and in fact have been the focus of what Evans refers to as “destination development.”

Main Street potential
“We have several downtown main streets that have so much more potential and can really be the places that a lot of new businesses and small businesses can locate and flourish. Some of the Main Streets are doing well but some of them could use some revitalization and we’ve tried to figure out how to do that,” he said.

The Franklin County Main Street Program was created last year, and through the program an application was made to the New York State Main Street Program. They awarded a $500,000 grant to be used for façade renovations in Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake.

According to Evans, the $500,000 grant will leverage at least the equivalent in private investment from building owners. As fourteen projects in all in the two communities are now starting to take shape, Franklin County is applying for a further grant from the state for the Village of Malone to bring new life to that community as well.

Revenue stream
In addition to the Main Street revitalization efforts, Franklin County introduced an occupancy tax, now in its fourth year, that provides a revenue stream to support destination marketing in the county. A partnering organization is responsible for this, increasing the impact and reach of the county’s initiative.

Evans explained, “Franklin County contracts with the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. They are based in Lake Placid and provide all the destination-marketing efforts for the county. They have really raised the bar.”

To support the entrepreneurial spirit flowering in Franklin County, the IDA obtained a micro-enterprise grant from New York State. The grant has provided seed money – and a boost – to new and existing local enterprises.

Meeting the needs of small business
With its new, wide-ranging perspective on the whole issue of entrepreneurship, Franklin County also identified a shortcoming in a loan program offered by the local development corporation, which resulted in the program being underutilized. An overhaul is in process that will better align its resources with local needs and other financing options.

“We haven’t used it as much as we should or could because it’s set up for larger loans and larger businesses and [not] for small businesses and entrepreneurs,” explained Evans. He’s looking to have it adjusted to better meet the needs of the county and its entrepreneurs, who are expected to drive the bulk of job creation in the region.

From the perspective of Evans and the IDA, “We need to create a culture where small business is king, where people feel like they can create their own job or create their own business.” Rather than attempting to recruit new employers who will provide hundreds of jobs, the focus is for the county to take care of its own and foster the entrepreneurial spirit at home.

“We can grow micro and small businesses from the inside. We don’t have to bring them in from other places. Our Main Streets are really good places for those folks to start up. So, whatever their industry, there are options. Micro and small enterprises are a priority for us,” he said.

Evans highlighted the exciting entrepreneurial culture in Saranac Lake specifically, and what is being done to support it, “We are trying to cultivate that, and one of the ways we’re doing that is creating an incubator and co-working space, which will be a physical space where entrepreneurs can come together and learn from each other, and we can provide financial and technical assistance.”

As a rural area, Franklin County does not try to be anything that it’s not. It acknowledges its limitations and seeks to build upon its strengths. In addition to supporting entrepreneurship and Main Street revitalization, the county also focuses on value-added operations in agriculture, biotech, and the legacy forestry- and wood-products sectors.

From local to global
Agriculture is a mainstay of the northern part of Franklin County and has been for a long time. Evans cites the example of a cheese manufacturer in the Village of Chateaugay which has been in operation for a century and uses 1.4 million pounds of local milk daily to produce 70 tons of cheese that’s shipped around the world. The goal is to encourage and enable other local agricultural operations to replicate this and find more value-add opportunities.

The same can be said about biotech in the county. As Evans noted, “There is a small number of strong biotech firms in Franklin County that are attracted to and find the pristine natural environment to be ideal. We have some disadvantages when it comes to attracting additional biotech firms, but in specific niches that depend on clean environments, we have a lot to offer.”

Pooling resources
Because its numbers are small and its resources limited, the County of Franklin IDA is committed to collaborating with a number of partners to pool resources, share expertise, and by working together, promote economic development. These activities will draw in economic development players at the local, regional and state levels, such as the North Country Chamber of Commerce.

Evans says, “For a couple of decades [the county] has been focused on building cross-border economic partnerships between Plattsburgh and Montreal. Those relationships they have developed, there is no way we could ever recreate those. They work at the state and the national level on issues related to the North Country.” He notes that they bring a great level of advocacy, resources, and expertise to the table for Franklin County.

With its partners at its side, the focus of IDA moving forward will be to expand business resources and market the county’s natural endowments and the good work that’s being done to maximize opportunities, whether provided by tourism, industry or enterprise.

“There is lots that we can be telling the world about what we have to offer and what we’ve been doing. It’s exciting, but on the flip side of that, we need to better market the people and the businesses that work and live here, and let them know there are opportunities if you want to expand or start your own business – and that there are resources available.”

And don’t forget that, according to Evans, “It’s a great place to do that.”

September 15, 2019, 4:37 PM EDT