ITHACA, N.Y. — The mood was one of optimism at the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce’s 2018 Economic Summit this week. Though not without its challenges, a survey of local employers suggested many were looking forward to a good year ahead.

The summit was intended to highlight obstacles and opportunities in the local business environment. Along with presentations from the Chamber of Commerce and Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD), the summit hosted a talk given by keynote speaker Heather Briccetti, CEO of The Business Council of New York State, an Albany-based business advocacy group.

Photo by Brian Crandall

In a survey of local public and private employers, about half said they planned to hire more staff and expand their businesses over the next year. For the record, no numbers were stated saying what percentage were simply holding steady, or shrinking. However, the overall local economic outlook from those surveyed was positive, if slightly behind the national average. But when asked to think of the region, opinions were less favorable, and views of New York State as a whole were pessimistic.

According to Chamber of Commerce CEO Jennifer Tavares, what sets Tompkins County apart in the eyes of employers is “a high quality life” and “a forward looking culture that embraces entrepreneurialism”.

Employers also cited a number of issues and concerns – first and foremost, housing costs. Tavares made particular note of complaints regarding a lack of affordable housing (generally defined as lower and moderate-income housing, 120% of local area median income or less) and single-family for-sale housing. The dearth of lower-cost housing options results in potential new hires either looking at long commutes or paying more for housing than they would like, which hurts recruitment and retention efforts.

“Housing costs must be right-sized. We need better options for families, high housing prices are a barrier. It’s great if you can sell your home for a high price, but we also have big opportunities to capture growth and investment, from those who choose this area to settle and grow their business and family. The more we miss those opportunities, we don’t know how we might ever capture them again in the future,” said Tavares.

Other concerns included high taxes, burdensome regulation (especially local permit processes), the need for transportation and infrastructure improvements, minimum wage worries, and workforce development. There was also a feeling that small business owners aren’t supported by parts of the community. Tavares summarized it by saying “{w}e need a few more really good business minds at the table.”

The Chamber of Commerce has a few “key initiatives” underway to try and meet local business needs. The chamber is planning to roll out a relocation guide for people thinking or planning to move to the area, that provides information on employers, school, and housing opportunities.

A “Visitor Profile” is also underway to look at why and from where visitors come, where and how long visitors stay, and what else they do while they’re here. The survey would even include some who decide against a trip, and ask respondents their reasons for foregoing their visit, to see where the county might improve. Tavares also touted the Tompkins Center for History and Culture, expected to open in early 2019.  “I’m hopeful we’re going to start seeing a lot of action, a lot of growth.”

(L to R) Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Tavares, The Business Council of NYS CEO Heather Briccetti, and TCAD Vice President for Economic Development Services Heather McDaniel. Photo by Brian Crandall.

TCAD promotes initiatives

Following Tavares was a presentation from Heather McDaniel, Vice President and Director of Economic Development Services for TCAD, the non-profit tasked with encouraging local business retention and growth.

McDaniel was similarly enthusiastic; she only needed to gesture out the windows to highlight her organization’s efforts. The Hotel Ithaca recently completed a $15 million expansion. Elsewhere in downtown, four major construction projects are currently underway, collectively valued at $146 million. “That’s amazing for a community the size of Ithaca, I don’t think you’ll find that anywhere else,” she said. TCAD has helped create over 600 jobs with $47 million in wages, and $629 million in investment in just the past four years.

Thanks in part to the efforts of TCAD, Therm Inc. decided to not move down south, and instead chose to invest and expand their South Hill facility. Perhaps more controversially, the organization also advocated for Cargill’s salt mine expansion, with the new shaft project approved and underway. “It’s not just about creating jobs, it’s about retaining the jobs that we have,” said McDaniel.

A major highlight this year was the success of solar farms in the county. Describing Tompkins as “the mecca for community solar,” where individuals buy into cooperatively-owned solar arrays, the TCIDA, which TCAD manages, has assembled several Payment In Lieu Of Tax (PILOT) agreements for solar arrays on behalf of several local towns. The effort has led to 40 megawatts of supply underway, about $200 million in investment and enough to power one-third of the homes in Tompkins County. TCAD is also monitoring labor hiring in current projects as part of an an effort to design a local labor policy to be implemented in the near future. There was no earlier data on what proportion of labor used in major construction projects is local, so it’s being collected now.

A pair of other efforts seek to address workforce and energy issues moving forward. TCAD is working on designing an advanced manufacturing training program for high-tech organizations, in partnership with local schools. The argument is that there’s a market to be tapped into for skilled, specialized manufacturing operations, which are less likely to be outsourced.

“There are the kinds of jobs that turn into a long-term career, averaging annual wages of $40,000-$60,000 over time; these are career path opportunities being missed,” said McDaniel.

Another initiative underway is an “Energy Navigator”, designed to help businesses come up with ways with reducing their energy use and carbon footprint while complementing existing expansion and retention goals. It was suggested that for businesses willing to go well beyond state energy goals, the county and TCAD are considering tax breaks or grants.

Photo by Brian Crandall

Similarly, the IDA is looking at way it might be able to incentivize affordable and middle-class housing, “workforce housing”. As previously reported, developers avoid these options since middle-class and affordable options are much less lucrative because many “hard” construction costs and “soft” permitting costs are fixed. A ton of wood costs the same, a worker gets paid just as much and the city asks the same amount whether a project charges $1,000/month or $2,000/month. From the perspective of breaking even on what’s technically a big, rather risky investment, there’s little incentive to build middle-income housing, so the IDA is weighing options to make it worth the effort.

One final note – the airport was mentioned, with the possibility of new flight destinations in the future. “We’re a small upstate community. We have a small airport. It’s hard to get where you need to go, but we’ve made strides, we’re working on better connections. We have Detroit, Philadelphia, Newark. We’d also like to be in Atlanta or Chicago.” Thanks to a more international, lucrative clientele and lobbying from organizations like the colleges and TCAD, the local airport has held its own in a time of declining service options. When United Airlines consolidated operations in 2016, it closed its Binghamton and Elmira operations, and consolidated into the Ithaca-Tompkins Airport, and added jet service last year. American Airlines also consolidated and added jets to Ithaca-Tompkins Airport.

With Cornell’s big plans, other big projects, and continued job growth, 2018 should be a busy year for Tompkins County and its economy. With any luck, this year’s optimism will be even greater when next year’s summit rolls around.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.