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Lewis officials may consider changes in economic development structure

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LOWVILLE — Lewis County officials are eying ways to improve coordination of economic development efforts, possibly outside the purview of county government.

“There are a lot of different models out there,” County Manager David H. Pendergast said Tuesday at a legislative Economic Development Committee meeting.

Committee members directed Mr. Pendergast and Eric J. Virkler, the county’s director of economic development and planning, to compile information on how other counties coordinate their development efforts for further discussion next month.

Mr. Virkler brought up the subject during an update on redevelopment efforts at the former Lyons Falls Pulp & Paper plant.

While the Lewis County Development Corp. owns the building and is heading the effort, Mr. Virkler’s office and Lewis County Industrial Development Agency, among others, also are involved in the project. Those entities have some connections, but all operate independently with separate boards.

The agencies are working well together, Mr. Virkler said, but having some type of formal connection might allow such projects to be done in a more coordinated fashion.

Mr. Pendergast noted that Oneida and Herkimer counties contract with Mohawk Valley EDGE, a nonprofit agency based in Rome, to handle economic development.

Some IDAs and local development corporations in those counties operate with independent boards but all use EDGE staff, “so there is a continuity and knowledge of what’s going on,” he said.

That setup limits the role of county government in economic development, although some government officials serve as ex-officio, non-voting board members, said Mr. Pendergast.

Committee Chairman Richard C. Lucas, R-Barnes Corners, asked if Lewis County could use the Mohawk Valley EDGE’s services, as well. Mr. Pendergast said that might be possible.

Mr. Lucas said the idea of restructuring the county’s economic development approach is worth studying and that taking it “completely out of our hands” might prove to be a better option.

Lewis County officials for many years have talked about moving toward a “one-stop shopping” approach to economic development, in which businesses and developers would have a single place to go for assistance with job-creation ventures.

County leaders in 2006 contracted with then-Lewis County IDA Executive Director Ned E. Cole to serve as interim economic development director and help work toward better agency coordination. Mr. Cole’s decision not to keep the position permanently and former Planning Office Director Jessica L. Jenack’s hiring as the town of LeRay’s first community development coordinator gave county officials an opportunity to bring in one person to oversee all development and planning activities, which they did in January 2007.

Mr. Virkler, who was hired in 2009 to direct the four-person economic development and planning office, organized meetings in early 2010 with several other local agency heads to consider ways to better coordinate economic development activities. While conversations have continued between agency directors, there has been little discussion at the board level, he said.

St. Lawrence County in 2010 dissolved its economic development office and began contracting with its IDA for economic development services.

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