SEEC IN THE NEWS
BY: John Cropley
Daily Gazette, January 4, 2020
COBLESKILL — Schoharie County’s young economic development organization later this month will hold the first in a series of forums seeking to address the opportunities and challenges that face the county and its economy.
The Schoharie Economic Enterprise Corporation will focus the Jan. 24 kickoff event on guest lodging. It’s a key component of the tourism industry but is in short supply in the county, and that hampers promotional efforts.
“Schoharie County has to draw people,” SEEC Executive Director Julia Pacatte said, noting that there are attractions to lure visitors but not enough infrastructure to support them during their visit.
In a nice bit of timing, the state Regional Economic Development Council awards were announced late last month, and the largest award in the county — after a million-dollar grant for Cobleskill’s sewers — was $500,000 to aid renovation of the landmark Parrott House on Main Street in the village of Schoharie into a boutique hotel with farm-to-table restaurant and bar.
New owners Nick Ahmetaj and Alex von Zehle signed the purchase agreement Tuesday and local officials introduced them outside the building Friday.
Distinctive lodging like that which the hotel aims to create is one of the keys to economic development, said Peter Johnson, deputy mayor of Schoharie.
“I think it has a broader impact beyond Schoharie,” he said. “It’s certainly going to have a powerful impact within the village.”
Schoharie and nearby Middleburgh both saw the departure of population and commercial activity through the second half of the 20th century, like so many rural villages. But they have a significant source of jobs over the horizon in Albany and Schenectady, with direct connection on a mostly uncrowded interstate highway. So they retained more vitality than many small villages.
Then the floods of 2011 hit.
Schoharie County Treasurer/Flood Recovery Coordinator Bill Cherry two weeks ago issued his final report on the disaster: 180 separate repair projects were undertaken on public-sector infrastructure alone, at a cost of about $90 million.
Private-sector property damage also tallied in the millions and led to closure, abandonment, demolition and a population decline.
“After a long, bleak period after the flood when the main buildings on Main Street were unoccupied, in the last six months or a year, all of a sudden, people began coming in, buying buildings,” Johnson said. “You get the sense that this period of crisis, almost depression, is ending.”
The Parrott House was one of the casualties of the flood. The owner at the time reopened his Irish pub after the flooding, but eventually was ordered to close for unrepaired code violations. A second attempt at revival in 2015 also didn’t reach the finish line.
The new owners will be in a better position to complete the project with the infusion of state money.
SEEKING TO HELP
SEEC is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit formed to help this sort of development happen in Schoharie County by assisting existing and prospective new businesses overcome regulatory hurdles, identify grant opportunities, and — eventually — provide monetary assistance.
It sprang from a detailed economic development strategy prepared for the county in late 2018 by Fairweather Consulting, which suggested the need for such an organization and mission.
With $125,000 in county funding and a sustained 2019 fundraising effort by the board members, SEEC has over $700,000 in hand at the start of 2020. Coupled with pledges of additional funding, it has secured five years’ worth of operating capital.
The Fairweather Report laid out in broad terms what faces the Schoharie County economy:
STRENGTHS — Strong workforce development providers, the economic catalyst of SUNY Cobleskill, a diverse business base, multiple interstate access points, villages with traditional walkable cores.
WEAKNESSES — Existing economic development efforts operating in isolation from one another, a slow-growing middle-skills workforce, limited transportation options, a farm sector too highly concentrated in dairy, too few large shovel-ready business sites, few guest accommodations, lack of confidence as a community.
OPPORTUNITIES — Multiple sectors or clusters available for economic development, creation of a sustained workforce development initiative, three nearby regions from which to draw opportunity.
THREATS — Inaction in the face of change, failure to participate in high value-added economic activity, village businesses unable to compete with online retail, burnout of a limited corps of volunteers.
Tom Putnam, chairman of SEEC, said the report led to discussion by leaders of all stripes within the county, and that led to the creation of SEEC.
“The success of an effort like that comes from a combination” of the county, towns, villages, educators and businesspeople coming together, he said. Buy-in from the Industrial Development Agency, Chamber of Commerce, SUNY Cobleskill, and multiple governments was critical.
Schoharie County has positives such as affordable housing and beautiful scenery to counter negatives such as limited job opportunities. But census data show that the positives aren’t enough of a draw — the county’s population is getting smaller and older, and 43 percent of those who are employed commute to a workplace outside the county.
Putnam has seen Schoharie County evolve to this point over the course of several decades. He was born and raised in Cobleskill, and established the financial firm Fenimore Asset Management there in 1974.
“I’ve lived in the county most of my life, in fact,” he said. “At one time the villages and towns were very vibrant and prosperous. [Then] transportation improved, and other areas seemed more desirable. Eventually the villages lost their attraction because there wasn’t the available workforce. Other areas were more exciting for young families.”
One by one, Pacatte added, the major industries in the county shut down — Interknitting/Guilford Mills, Klein Industries, Storybook Publishing — and 75 percent of the county’s manufacturing jobs disappeared.
THE NEXT STEP
The effort to attract businesses, residents, visitors and investment will begin by building on the assets already in place. Along with tourism and the college, Schoharie County’s biggest asset is its agriculture sector.
And there’s the problem: The traditional farming model of producing wholesale commodities such as milk has proved unsustainable on a small scale. Each year there are fewer working farms in the state.
“The dairy farmers that will survive realize that they have to diversify their product,” Putnam said.
Value-added products such as cheese or flavored milk — which the producer can sell for more money — are one way to do this. Farm-to-table partnerships are another. And some will find success with niche or artisanal products; a nationally famous example is Beekman 1802, right in Sharon Springs.
But building a multichannel, value-added business model is a tall order for someone whose education and experience are mostly in the production side of agriculture.
Pacatte said a key part of the effort is getting farmers the help they need to grow in that direction.
“Schoharie County has the added advantage of SUNY Cobleskill,” she said, referring to the college’s Institute for Rural Vitality, which has five distinct focus points. “They’re truly identifying and leading this transformation.”
Value-added agriculture will be the focus at one of six Prosperity Forums that SEEC plans to hold, each targeted to stakeholders in the area of focus but also open to the public.
The others will be Downtown Development; Access to Capital; Invention, Innovation and Technology; Commercial and Industrial Development; and Lodging Possibilities.
The discussion of lodging from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jan. 24 at the American Hotel in Sharon Springs will kick off the series of six forums. SEEC is co-hosting it with SUNY Cobleskill, the Schoharie County Chamber of Commerce and Destination Marketing Corporation, the county’s tourism promotion agency.
“The lodging felt like a natural first step,” Pacatte said. “Tourism is really important as an industry. … We’re missing opportunities.”
One of the missed opportunities is revenue from overnight guests at two new event venues just outside the village of Schoharie.
When the Parrott House opens, Deputy Mayor Johnson said, out-of-town wedding guests can stay right in the village rather than drive to Cooperstown or Schenectady.
“All of these things, these little green shoots, are popping up,” he said.