By Melissa Stagnaro
Special to The Evening Sun
CHENANGO – Attracting businesses to Chenango County can be a challenge. That’s why the area’s top business advocate thinks we should grow our own.
“We have to support the development of homegrown ideas into products and processes that can be the foundation of new businesses,” said Steve Craig.
The Commerce Chenango president and CEO points to Chenango’s own past for examples of the innovation and entrepreneurship he’s talking about.
“Our history is one of capitalizing on innovation,” he said.
David Maydole is a favorite example. Maydole, a blacksmith by trade, saw the head fly off a hammer and recognized it as an opportunity. He set out to redesign it, and the Maydole Hammer Factory was born.
“That innovation in the 1830’s was the start of the largest hammer factory in the country by the 1890’s,” Craig said.
It was aspirin – along with Unguentine and Pepto Bismol – that propelled the Norwich name to pharmaceutical fame. And an innovation in pallet design that led to Raymond Corporation’s success in the material handling industry. Craig’s list goes on, enumerating the innovators and entrepreneurs that helped shape Chenango’s business past as well as its present. Some, like the Maydole Hammer Factory, are now defunct; others continue to thrive. They’ve been joined in more recent history by names like Golden Artist Colors, Unison, Chentronics, Electron Coil and Chobani.
Craig wants to make sure that list keeps growing.
“This heritage is in danger of fizzing out if we don’t provide the kinds of support that new businesses need in 2015,” he said. “Today’s businesses need more than the old business incubator model of providing inexpensive space.”
What they need, he says is an “innovation ecosystem” that provides both physical and intellectual assets to startups.
Craig envisions a maker’s space, where budding entrepreneurs and innovators will be able to create, test and refine prototypes in much the same way Maydole did in his blacksmith shop.
“It’s a place where something that exists only in your head can become something that exists in the world,” he explained.
Craig hopes to include equipment such as a 3-D printer to make that type of prototyping possible, as well as a commercial kitchen.
“The goal for these spaces is to be talent attractors,” he said. “We want to send the message to our educated young people – who as a group are highly inclined toward entrepreneurship – that our community shares their aspirations and wants to see them realized right here.”
AMERICA’S BEST COMMUNITIES
Craig is getting innovative himself, when it comes to seeking funding for the project. Rather than going the traditional route of seeking grant funding or courting private investment, he entered a contest: the America’s Best Communities competition. The contest is a $10 million initiative spearheaded by Frontier Communication aimed at accelerating small town economies.
So far, Craig’s hutzpah is paying off. In April, the application he and other area leaders submitted on behalf of the Greater Norwich community was named a quarter finalists in the competition. As a result, they received $50,000 to begin work on a comprehensive economic revitalization plan and were matched up with a corporate mentor.
That mentor is another homegrown Chenango business: Chobani.
According to Spokesperson Jeff Genung, the yogurt company had already signed on as a mentor when Greater Norwich was named a quarterfinalist and were thrilled to be paired with their hometown.
“We’ve always believed that Norwich is one of America’s best communities, even before there was a contest,” Genung said.
As a mentor company, the yogurt manufacturer contributed a portion of the prize money Norwich received. But their contribution goes beyond financial.
“Chobani has served as a strategic advisor to help Norwich develop the community revitalization plan, providing access to and input from senior executives,” Genung explained.
The maker’s space Craig talked about is something that Genung says resonates with Chobani’s passion for innovation, imagination and inspiration.
“Getting behind a project that fosters and enables other entrepreneurs is perfectly in sync with our values as a company,” said Genung. “It would be amazing to see the Innovation Space nurture and grow the next dreamers with the next big ideas into yet another Chenango success story.”
Craig and his economic development colleagues spent six months working on Greater Norwich’s revitalization plan. The final plan, which was submitted to the ABC committee in early November, integrated efforts that are already underway along with shovel-ready projects, with a focus on supporting innovation. If Norwich makes it to the semi-finals, they’ll receive $100,000. And if they go all the way to the finals, it could mean as much as a $3 million infusion toward revitalization efforts.
Even if Greater Norwich isn’t named America’s Best Community, Craig said, it has already won.
“We’ve gained a great deal in terms of examining the challenges we face, and in valuing the assets available to meet those challenges,” he said.
And there’s the comprehensive plan that was developed as a result, something Craig says he feels will drive actions and lead to accomplishments.
“This isn’t just another plan that will gather dust on some shelf,” he said. “Regardless of our status with the ABC competition, we intend to seek other sources of funding to advance our initiatives.”
The key, he said, will be collaboration between employers, schools, BOCES and Morrisville State College. And that collaboration has already started. In fact, he credits the very idea for the maker’s space as growing out of a conversation with Morrisville’s new administration.
“There’s a lot to be encouraged about,” said Craig, especially on the education front.
Craig is particularly inspired by what’s happening at Oxford Academy and Central Schools, where new Superintendent Shawn Bissetta is engaging both students and the community with discussions about entrepreneurship.
“We’re really talking about entrepreneurship in its broadest sense,” said Bissetta, and focusing on how creativity, ideas and innovation can both create financial opportunities and improve the quality of life.
Shortly after arriving at Oxford early this year, Bissetta began meeting weekly with an ad hoc group of Oxford business leaders and educators. Jason Zbock from Morrisville State College, Otselic Valley Superintendent Dave Tenner and representatives from DCMO BOCES also join the group when they can.
“It’s powerful to talk about ideas that can move the school and community forward in a positive way,” Bissetta said.
One of the ideas to grow out of these discussions is Oxford’s new Worked-Base Learning Program. The program matches Oxford students with local businesses, where they can get real-life work experience.
While other programs exist that give students similar experience, Oxford’s program is different than most. Because of the program’s flexibility, students can participate outside of the normal school day. That means they can continue to take a full course-load. They’re also an actual employee of the business and receive a paycheck, rather than an unpaid intern.
For employers, it’s also a win-win. Not only are they gaining a motivated student employee who is being throughout the process, Bissetta explained, but their costs are being offset by the R.C. Smith Foundation.
“We really appreciate the partnership,” Bissetta said.
Fourteen students have been placed so far with employers such as BlueOx, Mayhood’s Sporting Goods, The Little Boy’s Shop, Oxford Memorial Library and the Village of Oxford.
Bissetta is confidant the program will continue to grow and evolve and perhaps one day even serve as a model to others in the region.
The superintendent is also committed to engaging the community as well as students in the conversation.
“Education lifts everyone up,” he said.
On Tuesday, Oxford co-hosted an Entrepreneur Night. Approximately 80 people attended the forum, which Bissetta says was a jumping off point. They will soon announce a series of events along the theme of entrepreneurship to kick of in January.
Chenango County’s Workforce and Industrial Development Liaison Steve Palmatier was one of the presenters Tuesday night. Palmatier, who was a key member of the team that worked on Greater Norwich’s ABC application, talked about the history of innovation in Chenango.
After enumerating the area companies that have spun off from aerospace manufacturer Bendix, now Amphenol, Palmatier posed a question to the crowd. It is one he, Craig, Bissetta and all of Chenango’s business and community leaders are endeavoring to answer.