ITHACA, N.Y.—The economic news in Tompkins County hasn’t been very good lately. Among recent headlines have been the announced closings of retail establishments like Bed, Bath & Beyond, the Regal Cinema, the Lansing Market, even the Burger King at East Hill Plaza. Biggest and perhaps the most ominous of all is the layoff of what will likely be hundreds of workers at the BorgWarner facility in the Town of Lansing.
Now, if one were seeking justifications, they’re not hard to find. Bed, Bath & Beyond and Regal Cinemas are staring down bankruptcies. The Lansing Market struggled to compete against the proliferation of Dollar Generals across the rural parts of Tompkins County. It’s hard to compete with the much lower wages BorgWarner can pay its Mexican employees, leaving here the parts of its business too specialized in research and development to effectively outsource. As for Burger King, the rumor mill is that a larger Mirabito station will be occupying both the current corner lot and the restaurant, though nothing has been formally filed with the Town of Ithaca yet.
Those explanations don’t take away from the sting of the news. People are losing their jobs, and families are forced to make major adjustments to their lives. If they move to other places for work, the economic damage becomes more acute — not only is their employer no longer spending locally, neither are they, and remaining businesses feel that negative impact. The loss of tax revenues from sales taxes and the loss in property value from empty space hurts local public services. There’s no sugar-coating the news; it’s bad and its impacts are bad.
Now, as far as public sentiments go, the staff of the Voice are quite aware of how it hurts. Beyond the rapid-fire commenters on social media, we get your emails, we take your phone calls, in the day-to-day conversations we hear your concerns and worries. The frustration and dismay, the worry that things will get worse; the “gloom,” for lack of a better word.
With that in mind, we reached out to the local economic movers and shakers with two questions — are things really turning sour, and how to respond to the current series of closings and layoffs. They should be well-versed in the stats behind the first question, and if they’re worth their paychecks, they should definitely be able to answer the latter — dealing with closings and layoffs in upstate New York aren’t anything new, even if it’s unusual to get a spate of them in such a short time.
“Statistically speaking, our local economy is performing well,” said Tom Knipe, the Deputy Director of Planning, and the person in charge of economic development efforts in the City of Ithaca. “Wages are up. Unemployment is low. Demand for housing and lodging are high, interest in development is strong. But change is hard, especially when we lose jobs in traded sector businesses, and especially for the families who are impacted directly. It is particularly disappointing to lose traded sector jobs like those at BorgWarner, but it’s important to keep in mind that we have a local workforce of close to 60,000, and there are exciting growth opportunities within other local traded sector industries.”
“Ithaca has shown resilience in the face of change, and I think it is because of two main factors,” he continued. “One, we are a creative community in which startups and businesses within other traded sector industries including high-tech manufacturing, tourism, food product manufacturing, and artisanal manufacturing have shown strength and growth, and two, the ongoing stability of our major industry, higher education.”
That response seemed to be fairly consistent among the local business leaders and officials to which these questions were posed: Don’t deny the recent news is painful, but state that it’s not indicative of any greater trend.
“I would never downplay the very real impacts of recent decisions to close/consolidate operations on area employees, their families, and the local economy. These decisions can be scary for those directly impacted, and onlookers who read this as indicative of a larger issue,” said Jennifer Tavares, President and CEO of Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce. “Many recent closings are related to national trends, not local, and some may be the result of long overdue adjustments related to several factors: the pandemic and resulting economic conditions; persistent supply chain issues and inflationary pressures; and ongoing workforce shortages. These shortages have, in some cases, exacerbated the ability of businesses to recover from the pandemic and capture economic opportunities over the last couple of years.”
“However, we have continued to see many bright spots and see evidence of a resilient local economy,” Tavares said. “We had 27 ribbon cuttings in 2022 for new or expanding businesses, and many of our stakeholders report that 2022 was a very strong year. The local tourism economy continues to demonstrate strength in visitor traffic, future bookings, visitor spending and room tax revenue growth; we continue to see significant business startup, expansion and large development activity throughout Tompkins County. One promising fact is that in our area, many employers have a number of open positions and the need for additional workforce. They are, in most cases, willing to train and invest in their teams and have increased wages and benefits offerings over the last couple of years. We believe that many displaced workers should be able to find employment opportunities, and organizations like Workforce NY can help.”
“There is always going to be change. We try to look at the positives,” added Heather McDaniel, President of Ithaca Area Economic Development (IAED). “Ithaca’s economy overall is strong and rebounding after the COVID-19 Pandemic. Other large employers, including Cayuga Medical and Cornell [University], continue to drive our economy. We successfully recruited a manufacturer here to Dryden last year — Knickerbocker Bed Company has over new employees right here in our community. The unemployment rate is low here and as a result, local employers compete for workers. There are resources right here in our community to assist with training that leads to direct employment in our community.”
So that’s all well and good. They’re doing their best to assuage worried residents and acknowledge the impacts while emphasizing that overall the local economy is improving following COVID-19. But “improving” doesn’t mean growing. So the follow-up question dealt with initiatives to move forward from the recent pains, and provide opportunities both for current residents and for those who might someday move to Tompkins County.
To his credit, Knipe proceeded with a list of detailed actions underway or planned; a retail assessment and recruitment with the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA), a small-scale manufacturing initiative with IAED, the expansion of a “character-based” entrepreneurial lending program in coordination with Alternatives Federal Credit Union, the Downtown Ithaca Conference Center under construction, trades training and tech space at the SouthWorks site on South Hill.
“It is an exciting time for economic development on the City of Ithaca,” he said.
Tavares also provided a fairly exhaustive rundown when asked about initiatives to build the local economy beyond recent setbacks. Whereas Knipe’s response was very detailed to the program, the partners and the goal, Tavares offered a somewhat more generalized answer, though still encompassing.
“First, we regularly offer business and professional development education, peer mentorship and networking opportunities, and help make strong connections to support businesses in developing and enhancing their customer bases, and find new economic opportunities,” she said. “Second, we directly support micro-enterprises and small businesses in establishing or expanding with some of our grant programming — the Tompkins County Microenterprise Assistance Program and the Agriculinary Tourism Microgrant Program, for example. Third, the Chamber and CVB both focus on marketing and promotion of our member and partner businesses and community-wide assets, through numerous channels and initiatives. Fourth, we are deeply involved in projects which directly support economic diversification and capture new business opportunities, such as the Ithaca Downtown Conference Center project. Finally, we focus on supporting the advocacy needs of businesses, organizations, and employers with local, regional, state and Federal officials, and we serve as convener in many capacities. Our key areas of focus include workforce development, rural community needs, destination management, housing, small business needs and infrastructure.”
“We spend a lot of time working with existing manufacturers and R&D companies to support business retention and expansion,” McDaniel added. “Understanding their needs and facilitating resources that keep them innovating and remaining competitive in a global marketplace. At IAED, we do work on attracting traded sector employers and hope to expand local resources to be a competitive destination for business and industry. We are currently pursing a state grant to assist with infrastructure improvements at SouthWorks, the former Emerson Power Transmission facility on South Hill, to attract manufacturing and R&D firms. We have also increased our staff to facilitate workforce development. We are actively convening and collaborating with workforce, education, and service partners to build pathways to direct employment in the manufacturing and construction sectors.”
To summarize these responses, which could fill a second article themselves — the local economic development officials, the business leaders, the advocacy groups and the electeds, they’re all as aware as Voice staff and as many of you are, the recent news is uncomfortable and causes pain to many local households. It is their job and ethical responsibility to help where they can. They’re working to provide resources and assistance to those affected, and in the longer term, help the economy grow above and beyond these recent losses.
Understandably, that may not disperse the recent worries. This is upstate New York, things have always seemed to be on the downswing for as long as most of us can remember. The most that can be done right now is to help those impacted and to try to make a resilient economy even stronger. That’s going to take time, money, effort, and a bit of optimism. With any hope, and with tasking the right people with the responsibilities of guidance in policy and initiative, that optimism won’t be unfounded.