Contributing Writer

Robert Houston

“How am I doing?”

Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch was known for asking that question to random people he met on the streets. He wanted to keep tabs on whether his efforts to improve his town were working.

Chautauqua County may not be the multi-complex metropolitan area that Koch oversaw, but it does have its complexities and its residents are just as interested in how their region is doing as anyone else, anywhere else.

So, how is the county doing?

“Pretty darn awesome.” said Justin Hanft, Executive Director for the Chautauqua County Education Coalition. But there’s still work to be done.

Number One Issue

“Our local workforce is definitely the number one issue for our local employers,” Hanft said. “Right now, there is a disconnect between the jobs available and the skills that are needed fill those jobs. Our task is to identify those who have the right skills to fill the jobs, or find people looking for work who we can train to fill those jobs.”

Hanft recalled the time not so many years ago when young people felt they had to leave the county to find work elsewhere. 

“We’re trying to stop that trend,” he said. “We’re seeing some success in that direction already, and momentum is building.”

To accomplish even more, the Education Coalition is “working with industry to eliminate the misperception that working in a manufacturing job is dark, dirty, and dangerous,” he said. That means educating students, parents, and teachers in the realities of the workplace. This has to be done because manufacturing is “critically important to the future of Chautauqua County,” Hanft said, citing the industry’s countywide annual payroll of $429 million.

Manufacturing and Health Care are the two biggest employers in the county. According to the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency’s website, close to 8,865 workers — nearly 22 percent of the county’s workforce — are employed in Manufacturing.

Those figures obviously have a significant and beneficial economic impact on the county.

In addition to building a skilled workforce, other efforts are underway through the Chautauqua County Industrial Development Agency.

Easier Access To Information

“In the works right now is creation of an economic development web portal,” said Mark Geise, CEO of the agency. “When its up and running, folks can navigate from our portal site to any other website hosted by one of our economic development stakeholders.”

The idea came about because of many comments to the IDA that “there are websites all over the place. Folks don’t know where to go for the specific information they need,” Geise said.

A second IDA effort is being directed toward establishing an alliance of all the county’s economic development players.

“We are creating a structure that will allow us all to work together as one cohesive group to attract new businesses to the county and to help our existing businesses,” Geise said.

From Start To Finish

“We are being extremely proactive,” said Richard Dixon, Chief Financial Officer for the IDA. “We try to see every business once or twice a year. We ask them what their needs are — new equipment, additional space, maybe a bigger facility, whatever it might be — then we help them access whatever local, state, and federal resources are available to accomplish their projects.”

Dixon and Geise make it clear that to compete in the economic development race, “We have to be business friendly. We have to provide the best possible customer service.”

To make sure that happens, they said, the IDA has a new, young, skilled, and proactive staff that will stick with a developer from the start to the finish of their projects.

Image Matters

Another major challenge facing developers here is the lack of a truly positive online image for the county. 

Chautauqua County Executive George Borrello said development leaders “have to control the image and the narrative of who we are. This is a wonderfully unique place, filled with great people. We have a great quality of life here with a low cost of living, good schools, great communities with lots of activities and natural beauty.”

County leaders have to do a better job of telling that story, Borrello said. 

Voters Can Play A Part

The problem is the political rhetoric doesn’t match the reality. 

“Even in this upcoming election, I have heard the rhetoric that we have no jobs and no opportunity here in Chautauqua county. Not only is the rhetoric false, it’s also very damaging.  It hurts our ability to attract people to the area who have the skills we need to fill open positions and it directs our resources away from addressing the true problem.”

Voters need to understand the realities the county is facing, Borrello said, “and reject those running for office who propagate these falsehoods for their own political gain.”  

Chautauqua County has manufacturers, large and small, creating fantastic products that are sold around the world. 

“We should be proud of not only our history of manufacturing but also our present and our future” the County Executive said. “Too often, people talk about what used to be made here. Let’s be proud of what IS being made here. Having the people of our county recognize the strength of manufacturing will help us to recruit and retain workers.”