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Wed., Apr. 1
Serving the communities of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, New York
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Know your ABC’s

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Thirty years ago, Jefferson County earned negative notoriety: its unemployment rate was the second highest in the state at 20.5 percent.

January 1984 was a low point in the recent history of the county. Our industrial base was atrophying; the dairy industry struggling; and Fort Drum was still a sleepy summer training camp for National Guard troops from the Northeast.

The possibility of stationing permanent Army troops at Drum was only a hope and a glimmer in the eye of the late U.S. Rep. David O’B. Martin, a prospect that had enamored the county for decades.

The county’s workforce had depended upon a string of paper mills along the Black River, the New York Air Brake Company and dairy farms, which produced the majority of milk consumed by New Yorkers. The cracks in the economy were becoming obvious, and the community quickly jelled behind an effort to convince the federal government that the 10th Mountain Division should be headquartered at Fort Drum.

The community rejoiced when on Sept. 11, 1984, Rep. Martin announced that Drum would become the home of the reactivated division.

Now as we compare our economic situation today to the state of the economy the year the Drum announcement was made shows how little progress we have achieved. We end the year with the second-highest unemployment rate in the state and the highest jobless rate in the north country. Our economy flounders despite the billions of dollars invested in Fort Drum, the hundreds of millions in payroll paid to soldiers and civilian workers. We still are at the bottom of the New York economic ladder.

Our community still is investing to meet the demands of the expansion. We continue to look for housing developers to upgrade the housing stock.

And we still watch the paper-making industry on the Black River whither away. Just last month the owners of Florelle Tissue Corp. in Brownville said that they were looking for another partner so they could reopen the mill, which closed in August. The New York Air Brake Company has stabilized with a new labor agreement, which restructured union contracts and in fact is adding some jobs as a facility it operated in Kingston across the border closes.

Over the last 30 years, Mercy Hospital and its subsequent nursing home efforts failed, throwing hundreds of people out of work. The Carthage Hospital struggles while the former E.J. Noble Hospital in Alexandria Bay is a shell of its former self, operating as River Hospital.

Yet we have been touted as the fastest-growing county in the state. Tell that to the unemployed.

Just what message have the job development agencies sent to the workforce? It is not an optimistic one. It seems instead that the alphabet soup agencies like JCIDA, JCLDC, WIC and WLDC focus their attention on revenue-generating schemes based upon renting space to each other rather than to job-producing private sector entrepreneurs.

The last year has seen the job-creation agencies fighting with New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli over pension benefits for their employees, and squabbling over tax incentives and investments to aid developers to build affordable apartments to bring supply and demand into balance.

The record of the agencies empowered by the County Board of Legislators to encourage job creation is disturbing. We live in a county that hosts the largest single employer in the state, and we have attracted many services to satisfy the demands for our new neighbors. But the agencies responsible for providing opportunity and affordable housing for the indigenous population have faltered.

Our traditional baseline industries are gone, and little has been attracted here to replace those lost jobs. On the other hand, the dairy industry is vibrant due to private investment by farmers who are building bigger herds and tilling more and more land. The development agencies encouraged and enabled the major investment made at Great Lakes Cheese in Adams, but we have missed the boom of the Greek yogurt phenomenon.

The other major job development success came almost 12 years ago when the community convinced Stream to locate a call center in Watertown. That effort was much like the campaign to attract the 10th Mountain Division. It involved the entire community and all elected officials who prevailed often in spite of the efforts of the agencies supposed to do the work.

And without any aid from the alphabet soup agencies, the county attracted American Airlines to its airport, providing quality service to the north country and southern Ontario.

As the community looks ahead to 2014, it is time for the County Board to revisit its oversight of the alphabet soup agencies and demand better performance next year by setting measurable goals. If the performance of the last 30 years continues after that, it is time to shut them down and bring the agencies back into the county government where elected legislators can be held accountable for job creation in Jefferson County.

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