NORWICH – After a year at the helm of Commerce Chenango, President and CEO Sal Testani says his agency’s looking ahead with optimism – and a mild sense of realism – about what’s in store for 2024.
Commerce Chenango saw an eventful year, adding nearly 70 new members to its roster in 2023, launching new events, and continuing programs that have made the agency a go-to for businesses looking to start up, relocate, or network with stakeholders and other business leaders in the area.
“Commerce Chenango is here to make Chenango County a better place to live, work, and visit,” said Testani. “I think that starts with community engagement, talking to businesses, talking to patrons, and then building on things we’re good at. We’re trying to make sure that our organization is sustainable and someplace that’s good for the community.”
Mindful of that philosophy, Commerce Chenango hosted a slew of events over the last year promoting sustainable economic growth. Its Community Spotlight series has touted local businesses and organizations, while networking events throughout the county connected business leaders with local bureaucrats. What’s more, job fairs sponsored by Commerce Chenango have opened opportunities for people to submit their resumes directly to the employers looking to hire. In June, Commerce Chenango hosted its annual awards gala which applauded businesses and entrepreneurs for their accomplishments in the business community. In October, it named Chobani the Chenango County Manufacturer of the Year. And a career expo held at the SUNY Morrisville Norwich campus in January connected dozens of job seekers with local employers.
Perhaps the agency’s foremost event of 2023 was held at the Chenango County fairgrounds. The inaugural “Taste of Chenango” saw more than 4,000 visitors to the fairgrounds in July, marking one of the county’s most successful festivals of the year. The single-day event attracted more than 50 vendors and exhibitors from around Chenango County to showcase an array of foods, wine, beer, and agricultural products.
“One of the things we wanted to do was highlight things Chenango County has to offer. And one of the most important things we have here is a sense of pride that people feel,” Testani explained. “Our cultural heritage is important to us and we want to show off what we’re good at.
The idea was that if you can make it, eat it, drink it, and sell it, then we wanted to promote it.”
Given its success, Commerce Chenango has floated the idea of making future Taste of Chenango events a two-day affair.
Though Taste of Chenango may again be a headline of tourism events hosted by Commerce Chenango in 2024, the agency has also directed attention toward helping recruitment efforts of local businesses through a new microcredential program that would provide young people the skills needed to get a job locally. Commerce Chenango is currently working with area school districts, SUNY Morrisville, and DCMO BOCES to develop a microcredentials program that would give students a leg up in the job market. Those who complete the program could potentially land a good paying job upon graduation, said Testani. The program would include the same training, with a focus on the same skill set, that employees receive at bigger companies.
“Many companies would give young people a 90-day trial right away if they have those credentials,” Testani said. Commerce Chenango is now collaborating with employers on developing the curriculum, and it’s talking with local school administrators about how that curriculum could be applied to content areas in high school classrooms. Testani said hopes are to roll out a microcredential program by mid to late fall.
The agency is also looking forward to a new cohort of graduates from Leadership Chenango, a program designed to groom future leaders in the hopes of preparing them to assume roles of responsibility in political, civic, and charitable organizations as well as contribute to their professional and career success. More than 350 business and community leaders have completed the 10-month program since it was first launched in 1988 under the auspices of the business advocacy organization’s non-profit arm, The Chenango Foundation. Leadership Chenango takes an up-close look at the workings of local government, agriculture, education, social services, the nonprofit sector, judicial system, economic development, business and entrepreneurism, leadership development, tourism, and health care in Chenango County.
“Leadership Chenango works with emerging leaders throughout the county and gives them an exposure to a variety of businesses within the county, hoping that they can take best practices with them and have a better appreciation that Chenango County is a good place to live and work,” Testani said.
Commerce Chenango also has an eye on business developments in Central New York that could have an indirect impact locally – namely Micron Technologies which announced in 2022 that it would build the country’s largest semiconductor manufacturing plant in Onondaga County. Not that Commerce Chenango aims to attract Micron to Chenango County, said Testani; but it could attract other businesses that may benefit from potential manufacturing contracts with Micron – businesses like US Silicon Trading, LLC, which revealed in November that it will be moving its warehouse to Norwich.
“When I think about what we want to focus on this year, we want to try to understand what it is that truly makes this place attractive for new businesses,” Testani said. “We’re not only going to promote the things we have here, but we also need to think about what we could have here. How do we exploit what we have, and how can we capitalize on that? We want to figure those things out.”
“We’re not really in the home run business,” he added. “To get Chenango County to a new level, it’s not going to be one big thing that happens. It’s not going to be done like that. It’s going to be done by a series of gradual improvements over time. It’s going to be done by good people coming together around important issues and moving them forward.”
One of those “gradual improvements” in the last year came in the form of a $10 million New York State grant for downtown Norwich. When the economic development grant was announced in 2021, Commerce Chenango went to work pinpointing the most promising investments in Norwich’s business district.
Identified projects will enhance business and housing opportunities, improve streetscape walkability and public spaces, and expand arts and cultural amenities. The grant will also spur job creation and stimulate the local economy. Nine projects were slated for DRI funds which will leverage private investments. Money will be used for facade improvements and interior renovations to create apartments and retail space in some of Norwich’s oldest buildings.
$3.36 million for development of a 45-room boutique hotel;
$3 million for redevelopment of the 10,000 square-foot Unguentine commercial building and creation of roughly two dozen new apartments and commercial space;
$292,000 for the Heritage building on North Broad Street for a healthy food market and brewery;
$140,000 for facade improvements and new living space at 15-19 Lackawanna Ave.;
$1.1 million to improve East, West, and Library parks to support better programming and events;
$165,000 for updated seating and a digital display on the historic marquee at the Colonia Theatre;
$570,000 to upgrade the seating, lighting, and audio-visual equipment in the Martin Kappel Theater at the Chenango County Council of the Arts;
$470,000 to outfit American Avenue with improved lighting and aesthetics.
Another $600,000 of DRI funds will be utilized by the Development Chenango Corporation (DCC), the economic development arm of Commerce Chenango, to pad its Downtown Norwich Small Project Grant Fund. The fund leverages investments from private property owners for building improvements and other transformational projects in the heart of the city. Testani says DCC is conceiving additional funding and meetings were scheduled with project leaders to keep plans moving forward.
In the meantime, Commerce Chenango is honed in on its core mission of bringing people together to make Chenango County a better place to live, work, and visit.
“If you listen to enough people and they talk about things they think are good, could be better, or be done in this community, and those things resonate, then I realize those are things that we should get people together on,” said Testani. “We’re fortunate that we have a lot of people in the community who care. If we could get several people in a room who care about our safety and prosperity, making our community a place where we can be comfortable, and improving life, then I think we can be much better off.”