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Katie Toomey, executive director of the Greater Oswego-Fulton Chamber of Commerce, recently joined Robert Simpson, president of Syracuse-based CenterState CEO, in touring downtown Oswego and checking out several construction projects.

‘A Very Wild Ride’

Oswego chamber, CenterState CEO unite to offer aid to business community during global pandemic

By Lou Sorendo

United they stand.

The Greater Oswego-Fulton Chamber of Commerce and Syracuse-based CenterState CEO showcased a united front for the Central New York business community while COVID-19 resulted in shutdowns that decimated the economy.

Katie Toomey, executive director of the chamber, credits the leadership at CenterState CEO under president Robert Simpson and senior leadership that includes vice president of business development Andrew Fish for helping create a valuable resource for the regional business community.

The GOFCC is a fully integrated affiliate of CenterState CEO, Central New York’s premier economic development and business leadership organization.

Lori Dietz, vice president of operations and compliance for CenterState CEO, transformed the entire staff of more than 100 into work-at-home employees in under a week at the onset of the pandemic.

That organizational effort meant the staff could communicate with members in a timely, streamlined manner.

“The way in which our leadership was able to rally our team and transform us into a remote workforce was truly impressive,” Toomey said.

What made the change easier was the fact that both Toomey and Sara Broadwell, community events and member engagement manager for the chamber, work at the satellite office on the east side of Oswego and are familiar with working in a remote capacity.

As COVID-19 became the No. 1 priority, CenterState’s first step was to assess the situation. From there, the team responded to members to make sure their needs were being met.

“It then became a matter of transitioning from response to mitigation, and we are gradually working our way into recovery mode,” she noted.

Toomey said teams have focused on helping members seek access to capital and support for workforce development. With assistance from city, county and regional partners along with larger members such as Huhtamaki and Novelis, it was ensured that those in need had sufficient supplies.

Toomey noted the organization went from featuring departments that focus on specialized areas to a well- oiled collaborative machine.

“The situation provided a wonderful opportunity to get to know colleagues who are on different teams as well,” she said.

Toomey said her team has been monitoring regional data for consumer spending and Oswego continues to be one of the strongest counties in Upstate New York for consumer spending.

“There was a clear dip from the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders, but the rebound has been a bit stronger in our county,” she said.

Battling back: Despite a lull in COVID-19 cases statewide, the chamber and CenterState CEO continue to do outreach.

A COVID-19 business resources section is accessible through that features policy and advocacy updates, business and financial resources, along with community resources. The site also highlights members who have donated time, money and effort during the pandemic to help the community, such as Eagle Beverage in Oswego.

To streamline the inquiries, the organizations launched

“This information is being constantly updated and check-ins are still being made to area employers and community partners to gauge their needs,” Toomey said.

Toomey said one of the chamber’s top recommendations to members were the financial assistance programs such as the federal Payroll Protection Program. It was strongly advised that businesses worked closely with their financial institutions.

Stepping up to the plate in Oswego County in terms of accommodating customers’ needs were financial institutions such as Pathfinder, Fulton Savings, NBT and Community banks.

The GOFCC and CenterState CEO provided various businesses and industries with worthwhile information in terms of how to proceed to seek help financially.

That information included rapidly changing emergency regulations and best practices for remote work and workplace safety.

“We haven’t received complaints regarding our financial institutions, because at the end of the day, they were working long hours, rallying for their clients,” Toomey said.

“Our direct partnership with the Oswego-Fulton chamber has proved invaluable in the wake of COVID-19, allowing us to better support the Oswego County business community as it navigated the early and ongoing impacts of the pandemic,” Simpson said. “With the GOFCC fully integrated with our organization, truly functioning as the Oswego County branch of CenterState CEO, we were able to extend our rapid response efforts to the county. Together, we helped identify the immediate needs of businesses — from personal protection equipment shortages to businesses able to donate critical supplies. We offered resources such as timely webinars and communications. We also strengthened the region’s advocacy voice at the state and federal levels. We were also pleased to partner on a recent free PPE toolkit giveaway for Oswego County businesses thanks to our partnership.”

Providing valuable safety net: Toomey said the organizations were in tune with some of the more significant concerns that local business owners had.

A spirited phone campaign reaching out to members of the business community resulted in about 2,500 calls being made throughout the region, including Oswego County.

“The most common concerns that have been expressed to my team surround the fear of the unknown,” she said. “Some of these fears dissipated as federal and state guidance was unveiled. It was incredibly nerve-wracking for many of our members.”

Toomey also spoke on the transition to remote work and the importance of work life balance. “After months of pandemic upheaval, one of the keys to a successful rebound of the business community has been crisis response and managing remote work-life balance under adverse circumstances,” Toomey said.

Toomey also notes the fatigue felt across the community. “With the pervasive, senseless and relentless reality of racial injustice at the forefront of our community and national discourse over the past few months, the stress and fatigue experienced across our country, state and community is palpable,” she said.

According to the chamber, foot traffic patterns in shops and restaurants have varied based upon industry and need.

“We have smaller retailers noting that it feels like the holiday season. They are swamped all day. We have others who are still struggling to make ends meet. Additionally, we have members who fall somewhere in the middle, like our restaurants,” she noted.

“Many of our restaurants have shared that one minute orders were slow, and then all of a sudden there is a deluge of takeout orders and staff is stretched thin. It has been a very wild ride,” she noted.

Meanwhile, the chamber and CenterState CEO have been working closely with nonprofits and local municipalities.

This summer, the GOFCC launched its annual Project Bloom program, presented by Exelon Generation and managed by volunteers from the business community.

Due to challenges involved as a result of the pandemic, the cities of Oswego and Fulton provided assistance to Project Bloom as well.

Both municipalities had their Department of Works plant flowers in popular parks in both cities.

The chamber also worked with organizations like the Farmers Market Federation, the county Department of Health, and leaders of local municipalities to ensure the safety of vendors, employees and market patrons at the Oswego and Fulton farmers’ markets.

Toomey said the markets would not be possible without the continued support from presenting sponsor Oswego Health; a partnership with the Richard S. Shineman Foundation, which awarded funding for hand sanitizer and PPE; and the Fulton Family and Oswego YMCAs, who graciously supplied staff and provided a pickup location for produce in June.

The markets are featured in Oswego on West First Street on Thursday evenings and on Saturday mornings in Fulton in the Canal Landing parking lot.