INTERVIEW WITH JEFF SENTERMAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CATSKILL CENTER

Read our interview with Jeff Senterman, the Executive Director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, to learn about conservation and economic development efforts as well as the unveiling of new exhibits and attractions at the Catskills Visitor Center.

Jeff Senterman

Jeff Senterman is the Executive Director of the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville, NY, a member of the Board of Directors for the American Hiking Society, the Catskill Watershed Corporation and the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce. Jeff graduated with a degree in Environmental Science from Lyndon State College and worked for many years as an Environmental Planner in New England before coming back to New York and the Catskills in the nonprofit sector.

SD: What is the number one issue The Catskill Center is concentrating on?

JS: To me climate change is the number one issue and the greatest challenge of our time. How would the Catskills look like in 2030 or 2050? I struggle to understand that, and work towards aligning The Catskill Center’s programs so that we can protect the natural environment while at the same time support a sustainable human environment. Unfortunately, certain communities will lose sustainability over the next few decades not because of drought and fires like we see in the West, but because of flooding. Events like Hurricane Irene will become more common and will displace communities located in floodplains. So, climate change is the lens that we are looking through to build sustainable communities.

SD: What solutions are you envisioning?

JS: Building infrastructure that is resilient to flooding is one. The bridges that are being built now are at much higher elevation for this reason. Also, when various entities buy properties located in floodplains to clear the space, relocation options should be put in place for people whose homes are being bought so these people do remain in the Catskill Region and don’t leave the area altogether. We at the Catskill Center are always working to create connections and build partnerships that advance viable ideas.

SD: How about the wildlife?

JS: We are already seeing species whose habitats are endangered in other parts of the country migrating towards the Catskill Region. As climate changes, more species will be looking for new habitats. We are trying to understand these migration patterns and create an island of biodiversity that connects with the Appalachians and bridges into the Adirondacks. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy and Open Space Institute are working to protect the routes for species to migrate.  

SD: The Catskill Center serves four counties – Ulster, Sullivan, Greene, and Delaware which are located in different Regional Economic Development Councils: Ulster and Sullivan are located in Mid-Hudson, Greene in the Capital Region, and Delaware in the Southern Tier. Each of these regional councils develop their own strategic plans with different economic priorities. The Catskill Region seems to be split between three different economic frameworks: Mid-Hudson, the Capital Region, and the Southern Tier. How do you at the Catskill Center reconcile this and work to support the entire Catskill Region?

JS: This has been a difficult conversation. The Catskills are not recognized as their own region and that is a detriment to our area. It’s the same with the NYS DEC and NYS DOT – various Catskills counties are assigned to different regions and that makes coordinating efforts a challenge. The Catskills have been struggling to build and sell a regional identity for decades. There is a lack of cooperation unlike what you see in other tourist destinations like Vermont. We at the Catskill Center have been working on forging and promoting a regional identity that the tourists and the residents alike can make sense of. The Catskills Visitor Center in Mt. Tremper is representative of such efforts. 

SD: Let’s talk about the Catskills Visitor Center.

JS: The Catskills Visitor Center opened in 2015 as a partnership between the Catskill Center and the DEC. It was initially called Catskills Interpretive Center. It took us sometime to figure out how to run the Center, what works, and what needs improvement. Through the advocacy work of the Catskill Center, we managed to secure funds in the State Budget that are specifically designated for the Visitor Center, both in 2020 and 2021.

SD: I know you have some exciting news about the Visitor Center.

JS: In 2017 we began work on renovating the interior of the Visitor Center to include exhibits showcasing the natural assets, the history, and the culture of the Catskill Mountains. We secured a Smart Growth grant from the DEC for scoping and planning efforts. We hired a consultant. And we are now in the final stages of construction. The project was stalled in 2020 due to the pandemic. But we are happy to announce that the exhibits will be completed and open to the public on Saturday, September 4th over the Labor Day weekend.

SD: What will the exhibits include?

JS: They will include the geological history of the region, current flora and fauna, the watershed, the communities, and the historic arc from Native Americans through the era of the Grand Hotels in the late 1800s to the Catskills of today. The exhibits tell the story of the Catskills. There is also a rolling mural in the style of the Hudson River School that summarizes the story. We think these exhibits interpret the Catskills in a way that is accessible to anyone.

SD: What other attractions does the Visitor Center include?

JS: There are two miles of walking trails around the Center, parts of which are fully ADA accessible. We installed a Fire Tower with spectacular views. Across the street there is access to the Esopus River. Let’s say you drive from downstate, and you only have one hour to experience the Catskills, the Visitor Center will give you that experience.  

SD: With the Covid restrictions in place, what trends have you been noticing that are here to stay?

JS: For a year and a half we worked completely remotely. Now we have a flexible work schedule with some remote work and some office work. There is more flexibility in both scheduling and utilizing the space. The pandemic has taught us to be flexible. Hosting meetings on Zoom has increased participation. Our workshops and roundtables used to have 15 people in attendance, usually the same ones. Now we have around 200 people attending via Zoom. It’s also more environmentally friendly because we don’t have to drive that much. 

SD: Final thoughts?

JS: Through its advocacy efforts the Catskill Center creates opportunities. We assess the region’s needs, and that’s what we advocate for when we go to Albany. We have aspirational goals looking towards the future, but at the same time we focus on objectives that are reasonable and doable.   

Founded in 1969, the Catskill Center’s mission is to protect and foster the environmental, cultural, and economic well-being of the Catskill Region. Learn more at catskillcenter.org.

Interview with Kerri Green, president of Commerce Chenango, and member of the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council

Read our interview with Kerri Green, President & CEO of Commerce Chenango who serves on several workgroups in the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council, including Tourism Business Development (newly created last summer), and Advanced Manufacturing. Kerri is also a contributor to the Southern Tier Economic Recovery Strategy Report. We review the Upstate Revitalization Initiative (you can read more about it at https://simonadavid.com/2021/07/21/the-southern-tier-economic-recovery-strategy-2021/), and the top priorities for the Southern Tier in light of the post-pandemic recovery efforts. Community engagement through small business networks and chambers of commerce is critical in ensuring the success of these programs.

This is part of a series of interviews with business leaders to highlight current business issues and identify trends.

Kerri Green

Kerri Green is the President and CEO of Commerce Chenango, and the Executive Director of Development Chenango (the Economic Development arm of Chenango), the Chenango County Industrial Development Agency, and the Chenango Foundation. Her Chamber experience is widespread and over the years has served on the boards of the Sidney, Otsego, and Delaware Chambers. Kerri served as President of the Sidney Chamber for three years, and is a founding member of the Young Professional Network in Otsego County. She currently serves on a number of boards including the Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council, the Southern Tier 8 Regional Planning Board, the Chenango County Planning Board, Chenango Health Network, Family Planning of South Central New York, and is the President of the Sidney Central School Board of Education, where she has served as a board member for over 15 years. Under Kerri’s leadership, Commerce Chenango took a central role during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a number of collaborations and programs that have been carried over into the daily practice of the organization. Kerri is a United States Army Veteran.  

SD: Please, highlight some of the priorities included in The Southern Tier 2020 Economic Recovery Plan, and the workgroups’ efforts to identify these priorities.

KG: In the summer of 2020 Empire State Development (ESD) got together with the Regional Council and the workgroups and asked us to begin working on a COVID-19 recovery plan for the Southern Tier. All the regions in the State were asked to do this – we were looking at the direct impact of COVID-19 and what we could do to address that and plan our recovery. At that time, in the summer, things were still very much shut down, we were very much still in the pandemic, but the State was beginning to open up a little bit more. All the workgroups in the Southern Tier were asked to look at how their specific industries were dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic: lessons learned, things that they had wished they had more information about, etc. The State was looking for ways in which it could help down the road – six months, twelve months, and longer, and needed to know what these industries might need from the State in terms of funding, technical assistance, etc. It was a big task that we were asked to do. The workgroups met throughout the month of August and gathered data. We created a Writing Committee, which I served on, and collected all the information from the workgroups and created a document called “2020 Economic Recovery Strategy: SOUTHERN TIER” which can be found on the website at https://regionalcouncils.ny.gov/sites/default/files/2021-04/Southern-Tier_Regional-Economic-Recovery-Strategy_Final.pdf. Each workgroup conducted surveys, talked to industry leaders, and community members to assess what the greatest needs were.

Some of the most important issues that were identified included workforce, money, PPE, facility upgrades, and remodeling to meet the requirements of social distancing, etc. We also got some really good stories from companies that were able to shift their model to address some of the needs in the area. I serve on several workgroups, including Tourism Business Development, which was newly created last summer, and one of the stories that I love is about a distillery in Delaware County, Union Grove, which shifted its model to make hand sanitizers. Stories like this show that people were thinking out of the box, and were doing what they could.

SD: Talk a little bit more about the workgroups you serve on, and the type of efforts that are being made to keep the community engaged.

KG: There are six workgroups: Advanced Manufacturing, Food and Agriculture, Greater Binghamton Innovation Ecosystem, Innovative Culture, Tourism Business Development, and Workforce Development. I serve on two: Tourism Business Development, which as I mentioned before was newly created last summer, and Advanced Manufacturing. Each workgroup feeds into each other’s work. Last summer I also served on the Writing Committee which compiled the data from all the workgroups and created the Recovery Plan. What the State asked us to do was to look at short-term, medium-term, and long-term needs for each industry such as funding, policies, and what the State could do to help more.

Some big themes that emerged from the conversations we had last summer included broadband, childcare, and workforce challenges. In the Tourism Business Development workgroup affordable housing and non-traditional childcare, especially for workers in the tourism industry, emerged as the most important issues. In the Advanced Manufacturing workgroup, the supply chain issues were the most urgent. And there are still some supply chain issues today, a year after we created that plan. These are issues that affect companies in the Southern Tier.

Last month all workgroups submitted revisions to include changes that occurred since last summer when we didn’t know how the future was going to look like – what do we know now that we didn’t know then, how the priorities have shifted, etc. These changes are reflected in the “2021 Economic Recovery Strategy” for the Southern Tier which is coming out soon.    

Also, the Southern Tier 2021 Annual Report which includes the state of the region in more detail, and highlights the regional priorities can be found online at https://regionalcouncils.ny.gov/sites/default/files/2021-07/SouthernTier2021AnnualReport.pdf , for those who are interested in learning more.

SD: Let’s talk a bit about The American Rescue Plan (ARP) Act, and how that feeds into your work.

KG: The American Rescue Plan funds go to counties and municipalities. We at the Regional Council can talk to municipalities, but the municipalities decide how to spend these funds. A lot of them have earmarked that money for things that they need in their communities. Some counties are doing a great job in trying to get the money to businesses and the tourism industry, and arts and culture, and other sectors that were hit hard by the pandemic and have no ways to recover what they lost, but others aren’t doing that much. Some municipalities are engaging their business community and the local chamber, and others are not. There is not one way to do it. But there are ways to be collaborative, and I wish more were doing that.          

SD: Let’s talk a little bit about your work with Commerce Chenango. What makes chambers of commerce important in this business climate?

KG: The Chamber work is critical. And sometimes people do wonder about the value of membership. Let’s just look at the pandemic, for example. Organizations like mine took a front and center approach when it came to this global health crisis. We advocated and got ourselves a seat at the table in terms of what was happening at the State level. I was the Chenango County representative in the Control Room, and was able to provide support and guidelines to businesses from wearing masks to social distancing and vaccinations. We are in a unique position in Chenango County, because Commerce Chenango is the Chamber of Commerce, but is also the Economic Development Agency for the County, and we also operate as the Tourism Agency for the County. Our work really affects a broad range of businesses and people around the county. Throughout the pandemic we called businesses to ask about their needs, we made ourselves available, we hosted webinars. We did this not just for the Chamber members, but for all the businesses in the county and even businesses that aren’t in our county. And the challenges continue throughout the recovery process. I think people in my position have the responsibility to be those boots on the ground and have those conversations with businesses. We at Commerce Chenango had in 2020 the biggest number of new members we had in the last decade. People were appreciative of the information that we were giving, and they wanted to be supportive. I think 2021 is going to be a banner year for us.

SD: Are new people moving to the area, and opening new businesses?

KG: Yes. People are hopeful. They see our part of the State as a place where they want to be, it feels safe. I get calls all the time from businesses looking to relocate.         

SD: What are some of the current programs that you are working on with the Chamber?

KG: I am very happy we are getting somewhat back to normal. We recently had our Commerce Chenango Gala, the first in-person event in over a year, very well attended. We will host our Golf Tournament later in July, and in the fall we will have our annual Membership Luncheon. We’re looking forward to having our job fair again soon. Businesses are getting back to somewhat normal. We just made a major announcement at the Gala: the Development Chenango Corporation (which is the economic development arm of Chenango County, and lives under Commerce Chenango) is in the final stages of purchasing a building in Norwich and we are going to launch a capital campaign at the end of the summer to raise $1 million to make some improvements, which will hopefully make the building attractive to a developer. The plan is to create a boutique hotel and we are very excited about this project. The lack of available quality hotel space in this area has been a real issue. This is an investment in the community and the ripple effect will be a game changer for Chenango County. You can learn more about this project at https://cca.commercechenango.com/NewsArticle.aspx?dbid2=NYCOCH&newsid=15073  and https://www.evesun.com/news/stories/2021-07-20/35019/Planners-aim-for-boutique-hotel-in-Norwich-within-two-years?fbclid=IwAR0xaE8lj6yJzW2inDQ0GL-WNGFdGSGX-zwImIarmA0O7pYmMb6nniPUjlo

SD: What other business trends have you been noticing?

KG: The use of QR codes in restaurants instead of handing out printed menus is something that I personally appreciate. The use of social media – social media has ebbs and flows, but I think the pandemic has heightened the need for social media. Younger generations use Facebook less, and TikTok and Snapchat more, and that is something that businesses need to be cognizant of. I see a lot of businesses that don’t have a website, and rely instead on their Facebook page for outreach. I also think businesses need to be more creative with their hiring model. Bonuses, alternative work schedules, being accommodating to employees, and giving people a good quality of life are important. It’s going to be a balancing act for businesses to attract the workers that they want but remain profitable. Younger generations, like my daughter for instance who is graduating college next year, want to have a meaningful job, and they’re interested in the quality of life, something that employers need to take into account. The pandemic forced businesses to allow remote work, and I think working remotely will remain a preference for many employees.

SD: How should counties and municipalities approach the ARP funding and set priorities?

KG: I think they should approach it more broadly to make the most impact. They have to take a look at the industries that were hit the hardest, and do not have an easy way to recover those funds. Arts and culture, events, small businesses – be as collaborative as you can, and be transparent. Organize public forums, ask for input. At the end of the day, municipalities have the ultimate decision on how to use these funds, but it should be done openly and transparently.  

Learn more about Kerri and her work at https://commercechenango.com/

THE SOUTHERN TIER ECONOMIC RECOVERY STRATEGY 2021

This year marks the tenth anniversary since the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDC) were created as a new economic development strategy in New York State, replacing the older top-down model with an innovative bottom-up approach that is meant to increase local stakeholders’ participation in shaping the vision and the priorities of each region. Since 2011 over $6.9 billion in State funding has been awarded to over 8,300 projects. Through the Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) a diverse range of projects has been funded thus far from hospitality and tourism initiatives to high-tech manufacturing and business incubators.

In 2011 Governor Cuomo created ten Regional Economic Development Councils: Western New York, Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, Central New York, Mohawk Valley, North Country, Capital Region, Mid-Hudson, New York City, and Long Island.

Each Council has developed its own strategic economic development plan to bolster economic activity, create new businesses, revitalize downtowns, invest in technology, and train skilled workforce. These plans address specific challenges and capitalize on unique assets that each region has to offer to allocate resources judiciously and stimulate economic activity. The plans are updated annually to include new challenges and opportunities. In 2021 specifically the post COVID-19 recovery efforts have become essential as well as investments in a more resilient economy. Public outreach and engagement are paramount in delineating actionable goals for each region.       

Regional Councils are organized in workgroups formed by stakeholders representing each region and engaging with local officials, businesses, community organizations, and academia to identify priorities, set goals, and design and implement strategies that best suit each region’s economic development objectives. The workgroups play an important role in identifying strong projects that can advance regional and state priorities.   

In 2015 The Southern Tier, Finger Lakes and Central New York regions became the winners of the Upstate Revitalization Initiative (URI) awards in the amount of $1.5 billion, with each region being awarded $500 million to spend on economic development projects over the span of five years.

In The Southern Tier the expectation was that the URI investment of $500 million would leverage more than $2.5 billion in private investment, create more than 10,200 jobs and have an overall economic impact of $3.4 billion over the span of five years. The focus has been on revitalizing distressed communities, spearheading innovation, attracting foreign investment, increasing exports, leveraging the region’s natural resources, strengthening regional industries ranging from advanced manufacturing to agriculture and tourism, and building a regional brand.

The Southern Tier 2021 Annual Report details the state of the region and highlights regional priorities – it can be found online at https://regionalcouncils.ny.gov/sites/default/files/2021-07/SouthernTier2021AnnualReport.pdf

The Southern Tier’s regional priorities, which are addressed by the workgroups include: The Greater Binghamton Innovation Ecosystem, Advanced Manufacturing, Food and Agriculture Industry, Innovative Culture, and Tourism Business.

A list of awarded projects over the past decade can be found at https://regionalcouncils.ny.gov/cfa/projects

The 2020 global pandemic caused disruption and forced the region to re-set its priorities. The Southern Tier Regional Economic Development Council has prepared an Economic Recovery Strategy that addresses COVID-19 related issues and reshapes the focus of the workgroups. The plan includes input from local municipalities, economic development agencies and industrial development agencies to bolster the economic recovery of the region and build resilience. The co-chairs of The Southern Tier Regional Council Dr. Kevin Drumm and Judy McKinney-Cherry described the plan as “pragmatic, ambitious, and forward-focused.”

The following overarching themes have emerged, and they will inform policy recommendations:

  • Expanding broadband access
  • Quality, affordable, and available childcare
  • Creating a unified workforce strategy

Statewide priorities include: childcare, economic and environmental justice, placemaking and downtown revitalization, and workforce development.

In 2021 the Regional Economic Development Councils compete for $150 million in capital funds and $75 million in Excelsior Tax Credits. Over thirty state programs participate in the Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) for state economic development resources from multiple agencies, representing a combined pool of grants, tax credits, and low-cost financing totaling over $750 million. Project readiness and the alignment with the strategic plan are of essence. The application process is open from May 10 to July 30. Learn more at https://apps.cio.ny.gov/apps/cfa/      

Learn about Regional Economic Development Councils at https://regionalcouncils.ny.gov