Fulton and Montgomery counties want to return to their manufacturing roots, and they want to do it by luring a “game-changing” company to a shovel-ready site in the region.
To do that, the rural counties have worked in recent years to identify their assets and develop a regional brand to lure new industry and jobs to the area. They outlined those efforts Thursday at an economic development roundtable hosted by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and asked for her support in securing funding for several joint initiatives.
“We have a pretty impressive list of ongoing initiatives for such small counties,” said Fulton County Planning Director Jim Mraz. “We seek any assistance you may be able to provide.”
The Democratic senator made two stops in the region Thursday morning, starting with a tour of the family-owned Hill & Markes distribution facility in the Montgomery County town of Florida and ending with a half-hour roundtable discussion with local leaders at the Fulton County Office Building in Johnstown.
At the roundtable, Mraz gave her a rundown of several key projects the counties are working on and the obstacles they’ve faced along the way. One of the region’s biggest undertakings has been identifying several 200-acre sites and making them shovel-ready, he said. That involves prepping them with water, sewer, gas, electric and Internet services, and moving them through the local permitting processes.
The former Tryon Detention Center, a 515-acre swath of land in the Fulton County town of Perth, is well on its way toward new use as a technology park and incubation center, with spaces for start-ups, offices, warehouses and other uses. The county hired DCG Corplan of New Jersey to conduct a targeted industry analysis that will identify specific industry clusters ideal for the park.
Another swath of land on the Johnstown-Mohawk border has the potential to be one of the most attractive sites in the Northeast, Mraz said, but the counties face significant hurdles to get it shovel-ready. The proposed Regional Business Park is located off Route 30A in Johnstown and is already home to two major local employers — a Wal-Mart distribution center and Fage.
To ensure municipal water and sewer services, the city would need to annex significant acreage from the town of Mohawk, but the biggest hurdle, Mraz said, would be re-establishing rail service along an old, abandoned railroad right-of-way between Fonda and Johnstown. The idea to use the rail line sprang from a visit last year by Mike Mullis of J.M. Mullis, a Tennessee firm that researches and recommends sites to major businesses.
“Mr. Mullis said, ‘Jim, 72 percent of companies that knock on his door want a site with rail service to it,’ ” Mraz recalled.
Fulton County has also had trouble luring new development because there is little room for municipal water and sewer systems to grow beyond the cities of Gloversville and Johnstown, he said. The towns surrounding the Glove Cities have vacant land to develop, but no municipal water or sewer.
An engineer determined this year it would be feasible for the county to establish a regional water and wastewater system. The initiative, dubbed SMART Waters, is expected to create jobs and generate additional property tax revenue.
Another big undertaking, Mraz said, has been coming up with a regional brand and identity officials can market to businesses, residents and tourists. The counties hired North Star Destination Strategies of Nashville, Tennessee, to help with this, and it’s on track for completion by the end of the year.
Most of these initiatives have required significant funds to hire consulting firms and conduct feasibility studies. Gillibrand said she would look into funding streams from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and support the municipalities’ efforts to participate in federal programs such as SelectUSA and the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership.
“It’s incredibly inspiring,” she said. “You’ve worked so hard to come up with something really imaginative and visionary for your community. I will help you every step of the way.”