Through the economic ups and downs, Chuck Steiner, president and CEO of The Chamber of Schenectady County, has been there through it all.
Q: Capital Region job numbers last year showed that we’ve gained back all the jobs lost during the recession. Does the chamber feel Schenectady County is back to its pre-recession status?
A: I believe so. We, along with other organizations, do an annual survey. We did one with our own membership as well as one regionally. The reports coming back from those surveys were very, very positive, [indicating] a high percentage of not only growth but stability. And in today’s economy, stability is growth.
Q: How do you think business owners are feeling? What would you say is the climate?
A: I think they are optimistic. The recession clearly was very, very difficult. People had to retract and look at other ways of doing business. That wasn’t all that bad because they looked at their own processes and obviously improved upon them to become profitable.
Q: In what ways have you seen businesses get creative when dealing with surviving the recession?
A: There’s no question about it. They are looking at their processes, and how they go about doing their business. Case in point might be purchasing. [Businesses] are going to look at the products that they need and making sure they can utilize just-in-time operations so that the inventory is not sitting on shelves. Inventory does not produce profits. Clearly this is good news.
[Businesses] are looking at overall staffing and how they can be more efficient and effective. They look at exactly what people are doing and outsourcing in some situations, which is a plus and a minus. Many of these small businesses are now stepping up and saying we can do this for you and save you x [amount of dollars].
Q: I guess that leads into the next question: Are businesses hiring? Or planning on hiring?
A: Yes. I believe almost 50 percent of the [survey] respondents indicated there was a potential for growth. A high percentage, another 40 percent or so, [indicated] stability in hiring.
Q: How do you feel about the governor’s push to make New York state seem more business-friendly?
A: Long overdue. We are very, very pleased that the governor has recognized that the future expansion economically, as well as jobwise, is going to come through the private sector, through our businesses. We have a lot of work to do, but the governor has stepped up and looked at numerous programs and initiatives how we can better be efficient and effective and open the doors of New York state to businesses. We still have some incredible challenges, but he has begun addressing that.
A: An example would be the cap on [property] taxes. Locally, we have to try to somehow control ever-increasing property taxes, which is a very big challenge not only to homeowners but to businesses.
His efforts to move towards regional economic development councils is another. [The councils] put together strategic plans for their regions and then compete for financial support...for those programs. And we were very successful, in December with that: we received close to $83 million.
Q: What else would you like to see the governor do? What changes?
A: Business climate is about businesses feeling comfortable about investing or re-investing in their particular business. When [a business] feels good about the environment it is in, it is more apt to invest. So when we talk about business climate, clearly we have to talk about taxes. It is the cost of doing business here. We are the highest-taxed state in the nation. That is a factor when you are looking at coming into New York state or a factor when you are trying to reinvest. Is this the place to do it?
We always talk about the regulations in New York state. From A to Z, depending on what business you want to be in, there are regulations. They are not all bad..but when you look at the volume of regulations, a small business only has so many people to monitor regulations. Time is money and if you’re spending your employees’ time just responding to these regulations, it is very costly.
The governor talked about this in his state of the state address. It is time to start addressing this aggressively, and that means eliminating or minimizing the impact of those regulations on businesses.
Q: What would be an example of that?
A: We are required on an annual basis to put down and hand to each employee a letter of their total salary package. Well, guess what, we do that every time we hand them a paycheck. Now our small businesses, to comply to that, 25 employees, 25 letters, 25 one-on-ones, a lot of time, a lot of effort. That’s costly. When we are doing it every payroll basis you are giving that same information. It just seems redundancy, and it is another factor. “Gee, government, why do you need to be in our face like that?” That’s one of many, many examples of the regulations.
The third piece that is a deterrent of the cost of doing business clearly has been health care. Now, this is not all on New York state’s shoulders here, obviously, with the Affordable Care Act. Over the years, our health plans have increased because of mandatory mandates that you had to have coverages. Now with the Affordable Care Act, I will submit to you that a vast majority of our small businesses saw an increase in premium costs, did not see a decrease. Now that is a little ticklish, because obviously the Affordable Care Act is across the country, but once again because New York state was very proactive in making sure prior to this plan the health care that was mandated by government had a lot of different mandates to it, like 50-some-plus mandates for coverage that we as small business had to pay for, so it was costly. All part of the business environment in New York state.
On the positive side, you’ve got a wonderful state of New York. The beauty of it, the growth, the opportunities, the marketplace ... we have great commerce going on in the state of New York.
Q: What growth have you seen in our area?
A: The other piece that I would say is very, very encouraging and optimistic for our region is General Electric, the recent growth of General Electric and GlobalFoundries. GE has seen significant growth with their new battery plant, with their alternative energy, also, you have seen in the press, the Africa and Middle East sales [of their] generators manufactured in Schenectady. Very, very encouraging. Obviously the technology sector ... has impacted all of us in this region.
Q: So you said you are very optimistic going into 2014. Expand on that.
A: Sure. Let me give you some ideas. We have some new facilities now to open, from small to some larger. The Old Dominion Trucking Distribution Center over in the Scotia-Glenville technology park, that is ready to be under way.
Also in 2014, which is under way, they began it this past fall, a new Richmor Aviation. They are building a new hangar. Another new investment, and obviously they deal a great deal with the private sector in charter air flights and supply, so that’s very encouraging.
We have a major new office building, also tied into occupancy, which is Socha Management over on Route 50 is building a $10 million office building facility.
And then you can look at other smaller businesses and operations. Here at the chamber, we did 60-plus ribbon-cuttings in 2013. Many of those represent, they have a ribbon-cutting for a significant anniversary, but more importantly, it is a new business or an expansion on this business. They do ribbon-cuttings for anniversaries, but the vast majorities of those are new businesses and or growth. So that is where my optimism is coming from, as well.
Q: What do you see as the future for businesses in Schenectady County and beyond?
A: Well, very excited, obviously, with the opening of Mexican Radio in 2014. I am excited on that because it is one of the continuations for what we have seen in the 300, 400 blocks of [State Street]. No one can deny the growth and expansion and the reinvestment we have seen in downtown Schenectady. And then looking at Metroplex, the next major phase and major work is lower State Street, which would be the 200 block between State Street and Erie Boulevard and down to the community college. And all of that is being bolstered by the completion of the Erie Boulevard streetscape project, which again opens up a great commercial district there on Erie Boulevard. And yes, we have challenges on the 200 block, but we are very excited what is already happening there and now what will be extended, as well.