Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo created 10 Regional Economic Development Councils to spur private-sector investment and job creation and to better coordinate existing economic-development efforts.
The North Country’s Regional Council generated a lot of excitement and valuable discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of our region and the direction development should take in the North Country.
The largest of New York’s 10 regions, the North Country has some definite challenges, including the lowest incomes in the state. Our unemployment and underemployment are also high — official unemployment in the North Country is 9.8 percent versus 8.2 percent in New York state.
The Regional Council’s strategic plan identified that one of our critical issues was attracting and retaining young workers and that a major strategy would be developing a strong workforce development system. Our region was one of four that was selected as a “best strategic plan” region, and we were awarded more than $100 million for 70 funding requests.
Bombardier is the recipient of one of the largest grants — $2.5 million — to help with the expansion of their transportation manufacturing facility in Plattsburgh. On the surface, this seems like a win-win: the Regional Council uses our tax dollars to help a company in the hard-hit manufacturing sector expand, and in return, we get good local jobs.
But, as is often the case with big publicly subsidized development deals, scratch the surface and you find some big flaws. Bombardier is projected to create 150 jobs and an additional 30 to 40 construction jobs on its initial expansion. But it was recently revealed that the company is using an contractor from Vermont for the construction jobs, and many of the permanent jobs will be temporary, hourly jobs through an employment agency.
To be sure, our region needs the jobs. But we aren’t getting what we paid for if out-of-state workers are getting the jobs.
A project that seemed so promising is quickly becoming a huge missed opportunity to create good new jobs for local workers. Hiring local workers has greater economic benefits for a region because more money is circulated back into the economy, spurring additional job creation.
Creating good local jobs helps attract and retain young people, keeping our communities growing and more prosperous. Construction unions provide training and apprenticeship programs that create solid career opportunities.
Using local union labor on this job would help our region meet its workforce development goals, ensure safe and good-paying jobs and bring the greatest economic benefit to our community.
The North Country Regional Council’s strategic plan stressed the importance of workforce development and apprenticeship programs, but Bombardier’s employment plans fly in the face of the council’s vision for a big, transformational project.
Other projects receiving public funding could be going the same way, like the Clayton Hotel and Convention Center. This project on the St. Lawrence River received $2.25 million from our Regional Council, but the main contractor, the Krog Corp., has not made any commitment to using local labor and has a history of using low-wage, non-local and non-union workers on its construction jobs.
We need to get our money’s worth from corporate subsidies — whether it’s our tax dollars being used through Regional Councils or other economic-development entities that give public subsidies to corporations in return for job creation.
We need to ask how many decent jobs will actually be created and how many low-wage, gone-tomorrow jobs we are actually subsidizing.
We also need to look at a company’s track record: Are they benefitting the local community?
Whether you work in a building trade, another profession, or are unemployed, you have a right to know how your tax dollars are being spent and to hold companies accountable when they take public money.
Our Regional Council was supposed to increase accountability and pay for performance, getting our communities better results than we have in the past.
Please let your elected officials, especially those that sit on the board of the Regional Economic Development Council, know that you expect your tax dollars to create good local jobs.
Betty Lennon is president of the Northeast Labor Council, and Greg Hart is North Country regional director of the Workforce Development Institute.