Stories by Stefan Yablonski
Sector is Rebounding, After Tough Pandemic Years
Oswego County tourism is seeing a resurgence.
As the pandemic continues to fade in the rearview mirror, things look brighter in the future.
“If we go back, the last 15 years — if we use occupancy tax collection as our metric — we’ve grown the economy by 273%,” said Dave Turner, director of the county’s Department of Community Development, Tourism and Planning.
That includes the pandemic year.
“We had that year, 2020, that saw a decrease of about 30%,” he said. “But then, the very next year, in 2021, we were back up. We had a good rebound in 2021 and then really significant improvement last year as well.”
Sportfishing in general is still a major draw for the county.
“You’ve got Oneida Lake with a lot of walleye and other fish. That draws a lot of anglers,” he said. “Lake Ontario, the Salmon River and the fishery — really eclipses all of that.”
There are other things that bring visitors to the area, he added.
For example, people stay in hotels who might be here to work on a project at the nuclear plants, the hospital or Novelis, he said.
“You also have to consider as well that the college activities bring many people to this area,” he said. “During the pandemic, you didn’t have parents here for graduation or parents’ weekend. Basketball, soccer, lacrosse, ice hockey — didn’t have all those visiting people and visiting teams and things like that. There was a reduction in all that during the pandemic.”
That put a strain on other businesses — such as hotels, gas stations, restaurants and others.
“The rebound was across all those categories. It’s not just more people are coming to go fishing or snowmobiling,” he said. “A visitor is a visitor in our minds and we do what we can to make sure that, for whatever reason you’re here, that you know about what there is to see and do and you have a good time so that you come back again.”
The county legislature has authorized Turner’s department to rebuild the tourism website. That project will begin this year.
“Hopefully, by this time next year, we will have something much more effective at communicating all there is to see and do here in Oswego County,” he said. “The visitor guide is just about ready to go to print. We will be redoing our little history pamphlet — that was highly requested — so we are doing a reprinting of that.”
With the waning pandemic, Turner believes there will be a resurgence in outdoor activities across the county.
“We are looking forward to continuing to work with all of the municipalities in the county to help promote all the things they have to offer, whether by geography or season,” he said. “We’re still promoting all the things we do. Harborfest has a brand new director. We’re looking forward to working with Dan [Harrington] and his board to let as many people as possible know about Harborfest.”
Oswego Visitor Center
The Visitor Center on West First Street in Oswego was open from mid-May to mid- September with close to 500 visitors last year.
“July was our biggest month with nearly half of the tourists for the summer. Local people and those from neighboring counties stop in to see what’s coming up, but many come from all over the state,” said Eva Corradino of the Oswego Promotion and Tourism advisory board. “As we saw last year, people came from all over, Florida to Kingston, Ontario, Massachusetts to California, for many reasons. Oswego is becoming a destination in itself.”
The center provides information on Oswego County’s rich history, boating and fishing, access to Canada by water or road, the Oswego Speedway and more.
“Families coming for softball and baseball tournaments at Legends Field all found our little center” Corradino said. “We were able to direct people to the things that interest them, providing directions to parks and museums, places to buy T-shirts and other memorabilia, restaurants that fit their taste or budget. We even helped one boater navigate the website to enter Canada by boat.”
“We met people who had recently moved here, drawn by jobs in Oswego and Onondaga counties, as well as retirees choosing Oswego for its small-town vibe with a lot of activity,” she added.
When coming to Oswego for one reason, they found a fun-filled place to spend time — beautiful sunsets, Harborfest, block parties, tiki boats, family fun Days, boat trips to the light house, history and outdoor music everywhere enticed visitors, Corradino said.
National Marine Sanctuary a Step Closer
Plans are underway to create a new national marine sanctuary in New York’s eastern Lake Ontario, according to Dave Turner, director of the county’s Department of Community Development, Tourism and Planning.
“We’re moving ahead with the marine sanctuary. It’s still not official, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Turner said. “If things go as planned, might be an announcement late this year or early next year.”
The proposed boundary encompasses 1,724 square miles of eastern Lake Ontario waters and bottomlands adjacent to Jefferson, Oswego, Cayuga and Wayne counties. The area contains 43 known shipwrecks and one aircraft.
The New York State Tourism Hospitality Association will be meeting in Oswego in April, he added.
“On the first day, discussion will be about the marine sanctuary and the status of it,” he said.
The NYSH&TA is the oldest state lodging association in the country. Today the association includes members from nearly all segments of the tourism industry.
MANUFACTURING: Preparing the Next Generation of Workers
The efforts from local industry to establish relationships with students in high school are reaping rewards to those manufacturers who recognize the value of staying proactive, according to Brian R. Heffron, principal Oswego County P-TECH.
“The success that we are experiencing with students successfully transitioning from school to workspaces in our communities is rooted in an active investment from industry to build relationships with students as early as ninth grade,” he said.
P-TECH students value and are loyal to manufacturers who spend time and resources to open up their doors for visitations, establish mentoring partnerships, designing industry-specific challenges and projects, and creating job shadowing and paid internship opportunities, he explained.
“In return, industry gets a front row seat in promoting their companies’ culture and values to the next generation of employees who are graduating from the program and entering the workforce,” Heffron said.
While students graduating from P-TECH enter the workplace very “green” and have limited experience on the floor, “our industry partners have communicated to us that they bring a hunger and passion to learn from their peers and establish themselves as master tradeswomen and tradesman,” Heffron said.
Yet, what he is most excited about, what they hear most from employers and what sets these graduates entering the field apart from traditional pathways is their advancement in the areas of professional skills.
“Our graduates will be safe on the job site, our graduates will be responsible with their expectations and our graduates will have the drive to perform,” Heffron said.
CCC: Advanced Manufacturing Institute is a reality
Manufacturing in Central New York is at a fascinating moment. Right now, established companies are growing, there’s an exciting influx of new industry leaders and there’s a definite need for the current and future workforces to learn the skills of today and tomorrow, according to Brian M. Durant, president of Cayuga Community College.
“The college is excited to play a role in the years ahead, where we can support our workforce and the industry with the training and skills they need in this burgeoning field,” he added.
For years, Cayuga has committed itself to supporting the manufacturing industry. In 2022, that culminated at the Fulton campus with the construction of the Advanced Manufacturing Institute.
The state-of-the-art facility combines classrooms, training units and specialized labs and equipment to provide students with access to top-flight training. It was designed and constructed with significant input from companies like Novelis and Huhtamaki.
Recently, Cayuga launched a new microcredential — electro-mechanical systems fundamentals — creating an avenue for students to earn introductory knowledge in manufacturing-related fields. This program started in February is an excellent opportunity for those entering the workforce to build the skills they need to succeed, Durant noted. The microcredential also provides an academic pathway into the certificate and degree programs for those students who would like to continue their education.
EJ USA products in high demand
EJ USA is the global leader in the design, manufacture and distribution of access solutions for the world’s growing infrastructure.
“We create customer-oriented solutions that greatly improve access to infrastructure,” said Tim McKernan, facility manager of the Phoenix site. “Our strategic investment in talented people and processes, positions us to supply this strong demand for our products.”
“Our current order activity is strong and we’ve been able to maintain full employment, while reinvesting in our facilities,” he added. ”This includes a new state-of-the-art robotic welding cell that is schedule to be installed this year at our Phoenix fabrication plant.”
Local projects, like reconstruction of I-81 and the proposed Micron facility, will utilize many of EJ’s products.
“Other than the site development where our products would be used, we don’t expect that Micron will have any impact on competing for workers,” he said. “The Micron workers have a different skill set.”
Recent Buy American clauses also help increase demand for EJ’s made in USA material, he added.
Novelis to complete capital projects
“2023 will be an exciting and busy year for Novelis Oswego. The Oswego team will continue to provide high quality, infinitely recyclable aluminum to customers in the auto and specialty markets while looking forward to the completion of capital projects at the plant,” said Kristen Nelson, plant manager.
Improvement projects in Oswego will increase the rolling capability in the hot mill, as well provide new locker rooms and amenities for employees.
“We are also excited to work with our partners in the community to continue finding opportunities to support our neighbors, increase access to STEM education and encourage recycling,” Nelson said.
AGRIBUSINESS: Farmers have a tough fight ahead — ‘overall economy has not been good’
“Things are about the same as it was in 2022. It’s not good right now, unfortunately,” according to Mark James of the New York Farm Bureau.
Like everyone in America right now, farmers are dealing with many challenges, he said, citing inflationary costs as one example.
“The cost of fertilizer tripled last year. A lot of that has to do with supply chain issues. But also the war in Ukraine has had a major impact. Ukraine and Russia are some of the biggest suppliers of fertilizer to the United States. That’s something a lot of people don’t know about. Fertilizers are petroleum based. And, the cost of oil — while it has come down a little bit — it’s still high. That’s certainly had an impact,” he explained.
Labor cost is another big issue.
“We’ve got a minimum wage that has been going up. We have the farm labor bill that passed and the recommendation from the wage board was to reduce the overtime threshold from 60 to 40 hours,” he continued. “We’ve had farmers who have limited their employees’ hours to eliminate the overtime and we’ve had people leaving to go to other states where they can work more hours.”
The overall economy has not been good, James noted.
If you factor in the pressures from solar development and the number of farmers who are reaching retirement age — when they get an offer for leasing their lands for solar for more they can make in terms of growing crops and livestock — it becomes pretty attractive to folks.
There are a lot of pressures out there right now on farmers and those are going to impact consumers down the road, he pointed out.
Eggs — some of that is supply chain issues and some of that is disease, he said. “Across the county we’ve had an avian influenza outbreak. The remedy for that is destroying the birds. And so, now you’ve got a shortage out there,” he explained. “We haven’t seen any in the major flocks in New York state. We haven’t seen it, but it certainly has been in some of the backyard chicken flocks across the state. I know most of the players here in New York — particularly in Central New York — that are raising birds for egg production and they have not, fortunately, had any outbreaks. That’s a credit to their bio-security protocols that they have in place.”
The California storms have also had a negative impact here, he noted.
“There are literally acres and acres of lettuce and artichoke and tomatoes being ruined,” he said.
Farmers are getting paid more — but their cost of producing their products has gone up also.
Any good news for farmers? Not at this point.
“We have an administration that is trying to electrify the entire state. That has drawbacks for the agricultural community,” he said.
For example, John Deere just came out with an electric tractor prototype — “but it’s a prototype.”
“The technology isn’t there to switch to all non-carbon fuels for equipment. If you’re drying grain, for instance, it’s not practical to use electricity,” he said. “The goal is admirable for the state to go to a non-carbon base economy, the practicality is that they are going way too fast and they need to talk to farmers about the realities of moving forward.”
Building more transmission lines to accommodate the electric future is going to go the route of least resistance, he noted.
“That means open farmland. That will put even more pressure on the ability of farmers to stay in business,” he said.
The Micron boom could take farmland to use for housing development, he warned.
NONPROFITS: Community Foundation – Pivotal time for some organizations
It’s kind of a tricky situation for nonprofits these days, according to Frank M. Ridzi, vice president, community investment, of the Central New York Community Foundation.
The foundation is a public charity that receives contributions from private donors, manages them to grow over time and then distributes funding to local charities to help them thrive.
“When the pandemic was occurring, we talked about it like an extinction level event where a lot on nonprofits could become extinct,” he said. “That didn’t transpire as we thought it would; partly due to donations and emergency funds; but also to PPE loans. That really kept a lot of nonprofits afloat.”
Arts organizations had audiences that kind of hibernated.
“Maybe they laid off staff and went to a bare bones staff. Human services agencies were called on to step up and really do a lot of work,” he added. “So now that we are coming out of the pandemic, we are seeing these interesting trends that affected them in different ways. For instance, arts organizations, if they aren’t able to pull together an audience — they’re having troubles. It impacts their financial statements. If you can’t pull those audiences back in and resume working as they were before the pandemic, it’s a pivotal time for them.”
Human services are hit with a double whammy in terms of getting funding from state agencies — there are a lot of hassles. The state often delays payments or it’s very difficult to actually get those contracts in place.
That causes cancellations and other budgetary issues. Some have to take out a loan, “and when you take out a loan you have to pay interest,” he added.
Agencies have to deal with cost-of-living adjustments and inflation, which is going gangbusters here, he said.
“In order to retain staff, you have to pay them,” he explained. “With inflation, there is the concern that they may see fewer donations.”
“The main way we work with living donors is using a fund that allows donors to contribute when they have the need to for tax purposes and other reasons,” said Thomas M. Griffith, vice president, development, CNY Community Foundation. “They can recommend grant distributions from their fund whenever they want to.”
There were a lot of donations into the fund during the pandemic.
“We’re seeing a similar trend so far this year, maybe a little bit less than last year,” he said.
The foundation’s fiscal year end is March 31.
Oftentimes how the stock market does is what really influences donors.
“When the stock market is doing well, people tend to make bigger contributions. Even with the market being down, we’re seeing a really robust giving this year,” he said.
It is a little bit of a mixed bag, Griffith added.
“It depends on how well the nonprofit has been able to re-engage in their work; as well as re-engage with their supporters,” he said. “For some it was a stark reduction — others fared better. The Community Foundation hasn’t really experienced much change over the last few years in respect to donors donating — in fact, we’ve seen good response. But it’s a much more varied situation out there.”
The United Way is big enough to do a lot of the payroll deduction to raise funds, he noted.
“I think the majority of nonprofits are doing their usual annual campaigns, trying to get donors to shift to monthly or quarterly credit card contributions. I think that’s absolutely a significant move.
“We encourage nonprofits to talk about planned gifts all the time. We have a campaign called 5forcny.org. It encourages everybody to include 5% of their estates to support the nonprofits that they care about,” he said.
Some people donate funds with very specific purposes. The foundation just stewards that purpose.
“Other donors donate and we use the funds to address various needs of the time,” Griffith added.
Donating helps plan for the unseen, Ridzi agreed.
“When some one gives us funds to use in a more discretionary way, a more flexible way, it allows us to really use that to address really the most pressing needs of today,” he said. “Who would have foreseen the pandemic? But people who died 50 years ago and left funds to us; we were able to use those funds to help with the needs of today. That’s one of the great things about it.”
The Central New York Community Foundation has a “very rigorous” process for donations. That involves having a relation with the nonprofit and then encouraging them to come to us with their best ideas,” he said. “Once they do that, we have a rigorous due diligence process that we work through — a site visit and application and board discussion, then we ultimately come to a decision on how to best spend those dollars based on what the community needs are, the most logical ways to address those needs.”