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Town and village officials debate Canton’s economic development

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CANTON — Village and town officials are debating whether to restructure their jointly funded economic development office so that more money and energy is focused on recruiting new businesses to the community.

Since January, when Mary Ann Ashley took over as village mayor and two new trustees took office, the village board has made it clear it would like greater emphasis placed on business development and job retention.

Creating a new part-time position or another full-time position to support old and new Canton businesses is one idea being considered.

“There is great hope, and a sense of urgency, on the part of the village that there be greater equity and better balance between business advocacy and community development,” Ms. Ashley said in an emailed message. “It is the village board’s position that more time and expertise need to be focused specifically on business recruitment, retention and development, in concert with community development efforts.”

The two boards discussed the economic development office in executive session during a joint meeting Thursday. The session was held behind closed doors because it involved personnel issues. The two boards plan to meet again May 12.

Village Trustee Daniel J. McDonnell said he senses that Town Supervisor David T. Button and some members of the town board feel that the Canton Economic Development Office is a “smoothly running machine.”

“I fear that it is idling at best,” Mr. McDonnell said in an email.

For the past few years, Economic Development Director Linda M. McQuinn has been directed by the Town Council to focus on community development projects as outlined in the Canton Community Action Plan. Ms. McQuinn is the only employee handling economic development. Her projects have included waterfront development, Brownfield projects, increased housing options, recreation trails and development of public spaces.

In the village budget adopted last week, trustees agreed to increase their annual allocation to economic development from $28,000 to $75,000, but they haven’t yet determined exactly how to spend the extra funds.

The Office of Economic Development has a $132,000 annual budget that includes a yearly contract between the town of Canton and Ms. McQuinn’s private consulting business, TA Smith Inc., Lisbon. Through a consortium agreement, the town contributes $45,000 while the village and St. Lawrence University each contribute $15,000 a year. SUNY Canton provides $10,000 and United Helpers Inc. provides $5,000.

“The village board believes the model of financing the Office of Economic Development is inequitable and in need of revision, which is why we have committed $75,000 in the 2014-15 budget,” Ms. Ashley said.

Mr. Button, in a nine-page April 16 letter to Trustee Brooke E. Rouse, defended the town’s focus on community development projects, saying those areas matched goals identified in the Canton Community Action Plan that was last revised in 2009.

“If one of the representative groups in the process, such as the town or village, wants to take the Canton Community Action Plan and, therefore, the work of the office in a different direction, they should raise those issues during the periodic five-year review,” he wrote.

“We should encourage new stakeholders that have emerged since the last review, such as the Canton Merchants’ Association to come, sit at the table and provide input on the new plan.”

The town’s revolving business loan fund has helped seven businesses either expand or start operations in Canton, which demonstrates that the community has not neglected recruiting local businesses and retaining local jobs.

However, Mr. Button said town officials are not opposed to the idea of devoting more attention to business development.

Mr. Button proposed that an additional $40,000 from the village be used to hire a part-time employee who could identify retail and business prospects in conjunction with the town supervisor, mayor and economic developer.

Ms. Rouse said business development should not solely focus on small business loans.

“Business recruitment, retention and development require a holistic, multi-level, strategic approach executed with careful consideration and tact,” Ms. Rouse said in an email.

Trustee Carol Pynchon said in an email, “The village board asked for the joint meeting because we want to focus on today’s needs and a strategy to ensure a vibrant future for Canton. With two engaged boards, the time is right for open and honest discussion.”

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