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 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/