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Lewis officials consider changes to economic development program

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LOWVILLE — Lewis County officials are considering changes to the way they handle economic development, possibly moving it under the auspices of the Lewis County Industrial Development Agency.

“I think both parties are willing to talk, but I believe it’s in the infancy stage,” said Legislature Chairman Jack T. Bush, R-Brantingham, who also serves as the Lewis County IDA board chairman.

And, while nothing will likely happen immediately, one legislator plans to initiate a full-board discussion on the matter at the legislators’ 5 p.m. meeting today.

Legislator Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden, said he wishes to talk as a board about the effectiveness of ongoing economic development efforts, both through the county office and ancillary groups like the IDA and Lewis County Development Corp., before deciding how to proceed with any shift.

Both Mr. Bush and Mr. King indicated some of the discussion likely would involve the performance of Director of Economic Development and Planning Eric J. Virkler and, thus, be done in closed session.

Mr. King has long suggested that local economic development officials have not adequately explored development in the southern part of the county served by Boonville municipal power, which offers relatively cheap electricity.

Some lawmakers also have privately complained that Mr. Virkler, who has served in the county post since mid-2009 after serving for several years as Lowville village administrator, has continued to work on projects like rails-to-trails after legislators voted against them. The LCDC, of which Mr. Virkler is a board member, has decided to purchase unused rail lines connecting Lowville with West Carthage and Croghan for multiuse trail development if it is able to secure grant funding to cover the purchase.

“I think there are some that would just like to get rid of economic development altogether,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. King said that it is not his intent and that he just wants to ensure there is an adequate return on investment to taxpayers.

Mr. Bush admitted that economic development is “not a tangible thing” and that Lewis County is somewhat hampered in development efforts by its location. However, he said, it is important to keep seeking new businesses and, perhaps more important, work to retain existing businesses.

While talks of consolidating economic development have cropped up several times over the past decade, Mr. Bush said the time finally may be right to do it.

“I believe the IDA and county are as close as they’ve ever been to a merger,” he said.

Local officials have in recent months made visits to the Jefferson County IDA and the Mohawk Valley EDGE, which serves both Oneida and Herkimer counties, to see how those nongovernmental agencies coordinate economic development on behalf of their respective counties.

While Mr. Virkler could join part-time IDA Director Richard H. Porter on that agency’s payroll, one of the potential stumbling blocks would be how much funding county legislators are willing to offer to help cover administrative expenses, Mr. Bush said.

The county spends roughly $100,000 annually on salary and benefits for its economic development director.

Because of the preliminary nature of the merger talks, no such changes are factored into the 2013 proposed budget, which lawmakers plan to adopt at today’s meeting.

However, as a cost-cutting move, one of the two planner positions in Mr. Virkler’s department is slated to be cut for 2013, reducing it to a three-person office.

Legislators at a recent work session decided to set aside $100,000 in unspent wind farm revenues for economic development projects. However, that move, which must be formally adopted this evening, would not help fund any salary.

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