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North Country Chamber President discusses annual regional business survey

North Country Chamber President Garry Douglas
Pat Bradley
North Country Chamber President Garry Douglas

Every year the North Country Chamber conducts a survey of its members to determine not only what they think of regional, state and national economic issues, but to calculate a Business Confidence Index. This year’s survey finds the majority of businesses expect some growth but have concerns about state and federal fiscal policies.

In a conversation with WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley, Chamber President Garry Douglas explains why the region’s economic confidence is strengthening:

One of the things that's very important to this region is our connection with Canada and 2023 was the year that we got back to normal. But we didn't know how quickly we’d get back to normal in terms of the return of Canadian visitors now there's no more restrictions on the border. We're past all that as of 2022 in the fall. Would they come back as strongly as 2019 and how quickly would they do so? And with a lot of effort by our visitors bureau, and others who I give a lot of credit to, and their just natural inclination to come back to the Plattsburgh area, they came back like gangbusters. While other border areas experienced 50 - 60% return last year compared to 2019, we hit 92%, almost fully back to a year that was a record year to begin with. They spent. We saw that in sales tax receipts. We saw it in the tourism economy and the retail economy in the area and investment came back. And we had high levels of interest through the year and Canadian businesses interested in the US market again. So that was a big part of it. And then certainly we've been experiencing in 2023 record lows of unemployment, down below 3%, some months, which stresses employers who are in growth mode, and a lot of them were in growth mode. But also means that you know, consumer spending is strong. We always see it as an affirmation from the business community that the economic development partners in the area are doing the right things. So generally keep to the strategies that you're working on. That's one of the key takeaways for us at the chamber.


The confidence in the state economy from businesses in the northern region here doesn't seem to be as solid. What's happening at the state level that's diminishing the local business optimism in what the state has been doing?


When we ask them about the national and state economies, that's their opportunity to just kind of vent some frustration and unhappiness on a range of policy matters. So it may not be so much the majority think the state economy is going to go down. But it may be more of a general expression that they're unhappy with the way the state is functioning or the national government is functioning.


Now the annual business survey, you take a look at the priority issues at the state level and at the national level. And at the state level the items that are at the top are workforce shortages, affordable housing and no mandates on businesses. Looking at the workforce shortages, what relief can the state provide regarding that?


Well, we're fond of saying there's no silver bullets on the workforce front. And it's not local. It's national It’s even international. And most of it is demographic. There are simply fewer people to fill jobs and an economy that's growing beyond the population. And so we have stresses. What we can do in the near term, and are doing, is to make things less bad. Let's help our employers dig a little more deeply into the pool of a potential workforce and draw them out and draw them in. Let's have more skills training. And then the things like having the support systems of childcare. We've had some progress on that at the state and federal levels but a lot more needs to be done. And then it's not surprising to see availability of quality, middle income, affordable housing being a major issue. In the Adirondacks it's a crisis. It was logical to see that rise very strongly.


Garry Douglas, the federal level issues on the business survey include inflation, optimizing traffic at the U.S.-Canada border, affordable child care and increasing legal immigration for workforce needs. On the legal immigration, what's needed at the northern border and how might policies differ from the U.S.-Mexico border, which is where most of the federal folks and Congress focus?


Well, nobody has an issue with legitimate visitation and flow and tourists and visitors and business. Everybody wants that to continue. We know in this area, that it's the single biggest driving force in the economy of the North Country is the efficient flow of our U.S.-Canadian border crossings. The part time or permanent transfer of resources and personnel from the northern border to the southern border can't be allowed. And we've had conversations just recently, including with our Congresswoman and both our senators in the run up to the coming summer season, to make sure that we stop that. We know you got challenges at the southern border, but don't steal personnel and cause problems at the northern border which is so hugely important to the economy of the country as a whole and particularly to border regions.


Garry Douglas, it seems like many of the issues that show up on the issues survey are similar to past years.

I thinkit indicates a sense from the business and employers who are out on the on the front line that we're not making enough progress, keep working at it. I think on many of these things like workforce development, we've made progress in the ways that we can. But it's not enough. The stresses are still there. So I think the messaging is, do more. So they're telling us keep at it, you know, you haven't solved this yet. So that's why we don't expect those things are going to drop off the agenda. And in fact, it could be depressing every year to look at our agenda and see how a few things drop off of. But that's okay. As long as we can convey we're working at it. We're doing everything we can and you're telling us that we still need to do more. We're going to do more.


Well, when you look at the feedback from the regional businesses and you see their top issues, are any of the issues that the Chamber is working on not reflected on the survey? Are there any differences in the issues between what you've got listed and what the survey comes in and tells you what the businesses are thinking out there?


Not really. The discussions that are around these topics are on the details, which you tweak and you change and you get ideas and you find new collaborations and partnerships every year to do more on those things like workforce development, for example, on housing. We recently pulled together a first ever Adirondack economic coalition that consists of the North Country Chamber, ROOST (Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism) in Lake Placid region, the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages, the Adirondack Economic Development Corporation, and the Lake Champlain - Lake George Regional Planning Board. The five of us have developed a detailed agenda around housing, a detailed agenda around broadband and cell service, a detailed agenda around economic and tourism development. So it's in the background that we're working on those details and trying to define the ways that will move the needle in a positive way before next year when we'll probably hear about same things because they aren't going to get solved between this year and next year. But we'll be able to report progress. We'll be able to see where on the details we made progress, where we didn't and where we need to do more.



The North Country Chamber’s Business Confidence Index found 60-percent of the region’s businesses expect increased activity this year, and 22 percent expect no change.