Operation Oswego County’s new executive director is now in charge of economic development in Oswego County. He is optimistic about the county’s future and expects substantial growth in the region as a result of Micron Technology’s investment in Clay
By Stefan Yablonski
On Jan. 1, 2023, Austin Wheelock will become the new executive director of Operation Oswego County, the county’s designated economic development agency.
He vows to build upon the good work of his predecessor, L. Michael Treadwell, who retires at the end of December after nearly 40 years on the job.
“I am married; my wife’s name is Amy. We have no kids — two dogs. We live out in the village of Cleveland, on Oneida Lake. I think it’s really one of the nicest places to live. It’s a jewel that I think is going to see more development and opportunity in the years to come —especially with Micron out in the Clay area,” he said. “You’ll see a lot happening in the Cicero area; I think it will spill over into Oswego County.”
Wheelock graduated from Homer High School. He has degrees from Morrisville, Alfred State and a master’s degree from the University at Buffalo in urban regional planning.
“Urban regional planning kind of developed in the 1960s as part of urban renewal,” he explained. “I think they kind of realized a lot of their mistakes with urban renewal; you know, it’s not all about the suburbs and moving out there — it’s about developing the urban corridors. Urban planning was more about getting people to the suburbs and now it’s more about developing your urban corridors.”
He had taken an elective course in economic development. It was taught by an adjunct professor, Jim Allen, who was running the Town of Amherst Industrial Development Agency in Western New York.
“I thought it was really exciting, really interesting. I thought it was a great productive way to use the knowledge and experience of urban regional planning to improve a community from the business side,” Wheelock said. “I got interested in that and at the time I asked that professor ‘how do you get a job in economic development?’ He told me that in New York state one of the good places to work is the New York State Economic Council.”
So he checked their website — the same day Operation Oswego County had posted a job opening.
“I applied. I was hired, before I’d even graduated. So I knew where I was going right out of grad school,” he said. “I’ve been here and I’ve loved it ever since.”
Wheelock moved his way up through the ranks: economic development specialist, property manager, then deputy director and now executive director.
“I started in 2006. Along the way, I also went through a pretty rigorous economic development training with the International Economic Council and became a certified economic developer. I’ve been certified since 2014. I think there are about 1,200 of those worldwide now. It’s a pretty good thing to have and a good way to learn and prepare for the job,” he said.
In high school, he had another career in mind.
“My plan was to be an architect. I was creative in that way. Actually, my first four years of college was studying in that field. Doing that, I actually learned about urban regional planning. I felt that was a better use of my skills and talents. Instead of designing buildings for just one person, I could develop and facilitate [development] for an entire community. That’s kind of how I got to where I am. Also, I am a lefty. So I use the right side of my brain,” he quipped.
Creating the game plan
Wheelock takes the helm of Operation Oswego County during a time of great optimism in the region, mostly as a result of the announcement from Idaho-based Micron Technology, which plans to invest heavily in the area. Micron is going to be a good thing to help the whole region, he said.
Micron Technology, Inc. is a producer of computer memory and computer data storage, including dynamic random-access memory, flash memory and USB flash drives. It plans to made a $100 billion investment in Clay over the period of 20 years.
“I think because of our proximity, it’s just over the border in northern Onondaga County, I think there is going to be a lot of organic spillover. Our plan is to work with our key stakeholders to be prepared for it. We don’t want to just get ‘something,’ we want to make the right investments and the right decisions so that we can facilitate as much spillover as possible. That could be everything from businesses within the supply chain to workforce programs to housing and more. I mean, it is going to be a lot of stuff,” he said. “There are some bottlenecks to getting the most out of this, like infrastructure and some other things. But if we make the right investments and we include the right people, which at this point we are, we’ll see what can happen. I think we are all pulling in the right direction. We are just going to have to, over the next several years, make the right investments and I think a lot of good things are going to happen.”
“It is one of my priorities to focus on adding [staff] to our team. Because of what is happening with Micron, we need to grow our team to have the right skill sets to match what’s coming and then our team overall in terms of the economic development stakeholders in the region to make sure that we are all on the same page and that we are all pulling in the right direction. If anything lags behind, it can be a bottleneck for the whole thing,” he added.
Wheelock calls the Micron announcement a ‘catalyst.’
“It’s really unprecedented for any of us. It’s the largest investment in this state — so we don’t have anything to compare it to in terms of a game plan. We are going to be creating the game plan.”
OOC purchased nearly 200 acres near the intersection of routes 264 and 481 in Schroeppel to more than double the size of the Oswego County Industrial Park, Wheelock said, adding that they were working to develop the property long before the Micron announcement.
“The decision was being made a while ago. We knew that it is a strategic site and we had been talking to our regional partners about that. It was no secret that [they] were trying to get a large manufacturer for a while. We just didn’t know the size and scope of that,” he said. “We have made investments. The IDA had made a decision back in 2021 — this was a several year process — to negotiate for the purchase of that property.”
OOC acquired it in July of 2021 and since then has committed additional funds and are seeking funds through federal and state sources to build out the infrastructure.
“Now, the clock is really ticking!” Wheelock added. “The new land, we have sort of a conceptual development for it. Now that we know what is coming, the size and the scope, our plan is to aggressively build out that site and market it to the best and highest use partners.”
Even more development
“You’ll see the village of Phoenix and town of Schroeppel looking at developing. They see opportunities now, too,” he said. “We are all thinking in the right way, we are all pulling in the right direction — to support or encourage some of that spillover development.”
“Our plans are to try to attract, for the size of that development, the size of the land down there, we could attract eight to 10 new businesses, which could support somewhere between 800 to 1,200 new jobs. That was sort of OK; it was ‘if this other thing happens’ …. This ‘other thing’ has happened now so obviously we need to bring in the infrastructure and other things to do it,” he added.
“There won’t be any slowdown. We are moving full speed ahead on all the other things we are doing,” he said. “Communication and collaboration are going to be key for our office because we can’t do — we can do a lot of things — but we can’t do it all on our own. There’s going to be a lot of partners all working together.”
Wheelock has already taken dozens of meetings introducing himself in the new role.
“They all know me, but now I’m in a new role. We’ve talked about how we can all work together. The Micron project is sort of the carrot to ‘hey, this is why we all need to work together.’ There are some really exciting things going on,” he said. “We are going to really focus on the development and marketing of strategic sites for manufacturing and supply chain businesses.”
The time is right —
for a lot of things
“I think now with this [Micron project] and some of the other things all happening at the right time, there is going to be great momentum — opportunities all over Oswego County! We are looking at infrastructure improvement for sites that could be ready for development with the right investments,” he said. “We’re also looking at ways to support agri-business and tourism in the county. There are many areas where we have significant amount of infrastructure and it makes sense that those are the locations you look at for your manufacturing; the areas that may not have the infrastructure, how do you support business growth in those areas?
“Look out in the Albion area with the Tailwater Lodge. That shows that rural areas can support tourism projects. We are looking for the right opportunities to invest in, not just tourism but agribusiness and tourism in rural areas that create jobs and investment.”
There will be a lot of growth in Oswego County, according to Wheelock.
“We’re going to see workforce needs that are unprecedented. New programs are going to have to be created from K-12, vocational, two-year, four-year schools and the trades,” he said. “It’s going to be great; a positive cycle.”
Micron will start building in 2024, Wheelock noted.
“They’ll need people soon after that. At the same time, we’re going to work cooperatively with the state to prepare our sites for some of the spinoff. We’re not trying to compete with anybody — we’re trying to facilitate and make sure the state and CNY region captures as much of the spinoff as possible. It would be unfortunate to see something that could happen here go off to someplace else,” he said.
Entrepreneur initiatives on tap
“We also want to build on a lot of our entrepreneur initiatives. We have some strong programs, the Next Great Idea competition for example,” he said. “The first time we did it, we had three or four micro brewery plans combined. This last competition, we had five plans alone. It shows that there is this sort of organic growth and what can we do to support that kind of industry. The winner of the 2022 competition was 6 Acres, and they are growing now out in Mexico.
“A lot of property in Oswego County is under-utilized. It could be better utilized for agriculture, tourism; where it makes sense for industrial and commercial it’s going to raise everything. Every community has different needs. Every community has different strengths.”
“Mike [Treadwell] told me to put a good team around us — in terms of staff as well as partners. That is why we are looking to add to our team, improve our skill set. More than ever we are looking to partner with our key stakeholders — the county, municipalities and everyone else, all of our adjacent counties,” Wheelock said. “We are trying to improve the playbook, but we’re writing it at the same time. It’s really an exciting time.
“Mike also said communication and collaboration are key. If we are all pulling in the same direction, it is a lot easier to get something done than if we are trying to do it alone.”
Being at OOC 16 years, Wheelock said he has “a pretty intimate idea of how things are done.”
“But there are still some things that Mike keeps close; those are the things in the next couple months that he’s showing me ‘this is how this is done … this is how you do that (not to say that it has to be done that way going forward) if you chose so, this is the way we do this…’”
“If I’m still here, as long as Mike’s been here, it means I’ve done a good enough job so that everyone wants to keep me. I hope so. I hope so. I’ve grown to love Oswego County. Since I moved here, I’ve grown a real attachment to the community — and really to the organization,” he said. “I am committed to the mission of Operation Oswego County. I thought, even before the Micron thing, it’s almost like you’re talking BC and AD — pre-Micron and after-Micron, I thought before we had such opportunities here in Oswego County to grow and to prosper. Before all this, we had plans to work on and do some great things I really think those plans are going to get supercharged now.”
“There is going to be a lot of opportunities for growth; it’s going to be strategic growth. I think things need to grow gradually or you’re going to get push back from people. If growth happens properly, it’s best for everybody. If it happens all at once and isn’t planned properly it will create a lot of issues,” Wheelock continued. “We want to do things that are going to be good for the residents of Oswego County, creating good jobs, investment, improve the quality of life. That’s really the mission of our organization.
“We’ve been exporting talent; we’re going to be importing talent now. We now have this new playground to play in that wasn’t here before. It’s going to be built from scratch, from the ground up! Being able to help play a part in that is very exciting. It’s going to be a challenge, but we are up to the challenge. I don’t want to call it a problem — it’s an opportunity. Some people might say, ‘it’s a good problem to have.’ It’s not a problem, it’s an opportunity! For CNY, it is the opportunity of a lifetime!”
As part of his new role at OOC, Wheelock will also serve as the CEO of the Oswego County Industrial Development Agency.