Ithaca, N.Y. — This month, arguably the most important business group in the Ithaca area got a new leader.

Jennifer Tavares
Jennifer Tavares

Jennifer Tavares, formerly the director of economic development for Chenango County, has begun as the president of the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce.

The Ithaca Voice decided to ask Tavares five questions about the challenges facing the area’s economy, what local government is doing right (and wrong), and if she and the mayor (also from Chenango) have met yet.

1 – What do you see as the chief economic obstacles facing the Ithaca area? What do you think the chamber can reasonably do/advocate for to overcome those obstacles?

JT: Most rural upstate New York counties are facing similar struggles: New York State continues to be a challenging business climate as compared to other states, despite efforts to offer new incentives and reduce property taxes.

Feedback I hear from small businesses and large businesses alike is that regulation, taxes, and workforce development issues are stifling their opportunities for growth. Fortunately, the Ithaca and Tompkins County area have a lot to offer start-ups and expanding businesses–and to combat the employee recruitment and retention challenges many other upstate NY counties are facing. The need for (chamber) advocacy for logical policies and less onerous regulations has never been stronger, and the Chamber and other community stakeholders will need to continue focusing on these issues in the years ahead.

2 – Why are you qualified for the post? Why are you interested in the job?

JT: My experience includes over a decade of general chamber membership and program management, and significant economic development related work. This includes the management and oversight of several non-profit organizations and a leadership development program. I believe I am uniquely qualified for this position due to my history of growing revenues, program outputs, and increasing the awareness of my organizations in the community.

I was interested in this job because the Tompkins Chamber and CVB are dynamic organizations which provide tremendous value to the Tompkins County community and the businesses, organizations, and residents they serve. Our family was interested in moving to the Ithaca area for so many reasons—the tremendous assets this area offers in the form of educational institutions, arts and cultural organizations, access to fresh local food, an abundance of great local businesses to support, and the fantastic quality of life.

3 – What do you think of the accuracy of the federal jobs numbers? (For reference over the recent debate:

JT: I observed this jobs report a few weeks ago, and I agree with Ms. Armstrong that the numbers seem suspect. It seems unlikely that a large job loss in the educational or health care sector have occurred without local municipal and economic development officials being aware of these shifts. Tompkins County consistently boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the state of New York: month after month; year after year.

Yet I often proceed with caution when interpreting labor market data; because the raw data and unemployment rate alone do not typically convey the actual situation on the ground. I look forward to discussing this issue in more detail with TCAD, the WIB, and the regional Department of Labor analyst.

4 – What do you think of the city’s current tax rates? Too high? Too low? (Just kidding.) What are local governments doing right — or wrong — to encourage local development?

Tax rates are a complicated issue, no matter the municipality or school district you are referring to. All elected officials would like to reduce the tax burden on their residents and offer more services. Numerous factors play into whether these public officials will be successful at reducing the property tax burden on residents and businesses, and whether the overall economic environment in a given area is conducive to new development.

As individuals and businesses, of course we all think our taxes are too high—when one considers every type of tax we pay, it can be onerous. The flip side of this discussion is the extent to which we enjoy and appreciate the services, education, or new development we receive for this investment…and I think most people would agree that they don’t prefer to receive less services or a lower quality education.

We can all agree there are places we would spend tax dollars differently, but the percentage of the total we choose to argue about is a proverbial drop in the bucket. My guess is that local governments are doing what they can to incentivize new development, but in general, I believe that most do not invest enough in economic development staffing and programs to achieve the economic impact they seek.

5 – The mayor is also proudly from Chenango County…Have you met with him?

Svante Myrick and I will be meeting early next week; I think he does a tremendous job of communicating with his constituents and the greater Tompkins County community. Of course Chenango County is quite proud that such an effective, up-and-coming mayor is from Earlville!

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.