LOWVILLE — Black River area municipalities, organizations and business representatives gathered Thursday to look at how to coordinate and harness resources to grow local communities and economies in the second “visioning summit” sponsored by the Tug Hill Commission.
“Opportunities. Partnerships. That was the goal of this meeting and I think we accomplished that,“ said event organizer Mickey D. Dietrich, circuit rider for the commission’s River Area Council of Governments, or RACOG.
Most of the speakers told a story of one business, project, municipality or organization to illustrate how available opportunities have been harnessed and how collaborations are making changes from blight to building possible, even when expensive chemical cleanups are necessary, as can be the case with many old north country buildings and latent industrial sites.
Scott Gilbert, co-owner of Tug Hill Artisan Roasters; Casandra Buell, director of the Lewis County Planning Department; and Brittany Davis, executive director of the county’s development organization, Naturally Lewis, told the story of how Mr. Gilbert and his wife Vanessa were able to transform the old jailhouse in downtown Lowville — which had a number of contamination issues like lead and asbestos — into the home for their coffee roasting business and a retail space that has allowed them to expand by using gap financing through Naturally Lewis and state Downtown Stabilization Grant funds.
Previously, RACOG communities were along the Black River in Jefferson County, but the membership has expanded into Lewis County.
“Adding these Lewis County communities has really added a nice piece to continue to have open discussions, open partnerships and sharing of ideas,” said West Carthage Mayor Scott M. Burto. “It’s just a positive for us to hear what’s going on (in Lewis County) and how can partner with them and bring some of that over the border into Jefferson County and our neighboring communities.”
Large-scale, collaborative municipal projects like the Joint Economic Resiliency & Recovery Plan created to help the villages of West Carthage and Carthage and the towns of Champion and Wilna have the most economic development and resiliency impact on their communities with shared resources and the efforts of Wilna and the village of Deferiet to get the former St. Regis Paper mill site designated as a Brownfield Opportunity Area and look at redevelopment opportunities including the possibility of its use as a solar farm.
Presentations by the new leader of Maple Ridge Center, Erin Holmes, and BOCES Principal Mallory Douglas drew the most discussion among the group, offering partnership suggestions and programming ideas that would fill gaps in what is available in area services, from therapy horse programs at Maple Ridge to wastewater plant operator training programs at BOCES.
Although it was not a scheduled presentation, Lorilei Matteson and Wendy Brown of the Career Skills Program at Fort Drum explained the internships they help organize for soldiers about to end their service.
“There’s typically between 250 and 300 soldiers getting out of Fort Drum every single month, so it’s a huge networking opportunity and opportunity for you to get an intern in there that you don’t have to pay and to give them some good training,” Ms. Matteson said.
To end the day on a lighter note, Mr. Dietrich offered a game of “Opportunity Jeopardy” featuring answers to questions involving a number of grants that participants could use to accomplish their goals, bringing out the competitive side of a number of motivated participants.
“I thought overall it was a good dynamic with a bunch of different interests and perspectives from different organizations and different groups,” Mr. Dietrich said after the event, noting that feedback from this year’s participants will be used to set up next year’s summit.
The Tug Hill Commission is a state-funded organization created to help local governments and communities “shape the future” of the Tug Hill Region, working in part through municipal networks called “councils of governments” that share similar issues, needs and opportunities.
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