RAVENA-COEYMANS-SELKIRK — The RCS Community Business Association is looking to attract new business to the area, and at its recent meeting drew on the experiences of a local IDA official to find new ways to do it.
The business organization held its June meeting at the Cornell Hook and Ladder firehouse in New Baltimore, featuring speaker Rene Van Schaack, the executive director of the Greene County Industrial Development Agency, or IDA.
Before joining the IDA, Van Schaack had a long-standing history in the environmental field, heading up the Soil and Water Conservation District. He said working on environmental issues has become critical in development nowadays.
“Everyone in business and business development knows that you can have a good project, someone will loan you the money, but if you don’t deal with the environmentals, you are dead in the water,” Van Schaack told the audience.
Years ago, he said, that was the way the IDA used to do business, but it doesn’t work anymore.
“Communities have gotten much more sensitive to environmental issues, so they brought me in because they had a lawsuit that had ground everything to a halt,” he said. “I started working with them, doing all their environmental work, their SEQRA (State Environmental Quality Review Act) work. The IDA in Greene County is a little bit unique — we are a public authority so we are subject to the same rules that every municipality or city has to follow. As a public authority, we are also a favorite target of the state comptroller, who loves to beat up on IDAs, and we are not the favorite of some people who don’t like giving away tax breaks, but that’s the reality of dealing with the world we live in.”
At the same time, however, Van Schaack explained that the Greene IDA does not get any public funding from either local towns or the county legislature.
“So just like the people in this room, I am running a business,” he said. “If I perform, we get funded. If I don’t perform, we don’t get funded.”
So how does the IDA stay afloat? By essentially working as a land developer, and creating shovel-ready properties to draw in big companies like Ferguson Enterprises, Serta and Empire Merchants North, all based in Coxsackie business parks developed by the Greene IDA.
But the business environment among those kinds of big companies has changed over the years.
“When I started working in this field, it was pretty typical that if you wanted to build a warehouse, you strapped yourself in for three years and you took it on. Businesses don’t want to do this anymore,” Van Schaack explained. “They want to get in the ground quickly.”
So by creating shovel-ready properties, the IDA makes it easier for new businesses to come into a community, culling the process down and shortening the amount of time it would take the company to get going. They do that by working on things like infrastructure, specifically putting roads, water and sewer in place so the company doesn’t have to.
The cost, on average, to the IDA to build a shovel-ready park? In the range of $5 million and $7 million, Van Schaack said.
Then, when a business purchases the land from the IDA, the IDA in turn uses that “profit” to keep their operations going, and uses the rest to roll it over into the next project.
There are three business parks in Coxsackie created by the IDA, and the IDA spent nearly $15 million for direct public infrastructure, as well as working with the incoming companies on things like permitting and wetlands mitigation, and ensuring there are green, open spaces.
Van Schaack stressed that while the old way of doing business would have developers and environmentalists at loggerheads with each other, that doesn’t have to be the case.
“I went to the IDA board and said we could fight the old way, or let’s bring them all to the table and try to have an honest, genuine negotiation, and it worked,” he said.
Van Schaack also said that while there is a perception that zoning is the “enemy” of business, that is not the case. Having parameters and knowing what is allowed and what isn’t, can be a boon to business and make the permitting process much simpler.
“Good businesses want to know that their investment is going to be protected,” Van Schaack said. “Zoning is not the death of business. Zoning helps businesses know what they can and can’t do.”
Getting the community engaged, and building “open and honest” relationships between towns and developers, is the key, he noted.
There are four important challenges facing towns in this area, Van Schaack said, when it comes to drawing in new business.
“Workforce is at the absolute top of the list of problems that we have in this area,” he said. “We are, in this rural area, at about max work. There are people who are physically able to work, but they either don’t want to work, they won’t ever want to work, and we aren’t going to change that work ethic with a help wanted ad.”
To resolve the workforce issue, Van Schaack said, communities need to build on their residential numbers.
“We need to bring new people in here to live,” he said. “Workforce is an issue, so we need to either bring in new people or get our kids to stay here.”
Infrastructure — particularly water and sewer — are the second biggest hurdles facing local communities.
Thirdly, there is a need for people in the community who are willing to take risks and have a long-term vision. The concept known as NIMBY — an acronym for “Not in My Backyard” — poses a very real problem for a lot of communities, Van Schaack contended.
“If there is anything that is discouraging to me, it’s that communities have to get together. NIMBY-ism is out of control. People are against anything and everything,” he said. And that attitude can stop development in its tracks.
A fourth problem facing many communities is negative reader comments online on sites such as local newspapers and social media. Those kinds of comments can give developers a bad, unfriendly impression of a town, he noted.
“I don’t know how we fix that,” Van Schaack said. “I know people who are negative, but I tell them to [gripe] about that in private. When you put it out there, developers notice.”
Ravena Village Trustee Nancy Warner agreed.
“We are our own worst enemy,” Warner said. “If people go online and talk [badly] about the community, then how do you expect new people to come here?”
Van Schaack said that is why it is important to “get the real story out there.”
Because Ravena and Coeymans are based in Albany County, local municipalities would have to utilize the Albany County IDA to help with drawing developers to the area. Some ways IDAs can help are by offering mortgage tax exemptions, sales and use tax exemptions, tax exempt bonds, and, in particular, PILOT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) programs, which give tax breaks to new, incoming businesses.
But PILOT programs, Van Schaack said, can “rile up” a community because some feel that if a new business is given a tax break, that money will have to come out of their pockets.
“That is patently untrue,” Van Schaack said. “Taxes in New York state are one of the largest impediments to new business… You need to give business a little bit of a tax break or you are dead in the water.”
The only way a PILOT incentive can negatively impact a community, he said, is if the municipality has to add additional services to accommodate the business, such as hiring new police officers. But that can be taken into account as part of the deal, he added.