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How to Rebuild an Economic Development Organization: The Case of Albany County, NY

Rebuilding an Economic Development Organization in Albany, NY

Sometimes life presents “do-over” moments. That’s what’s happening in Albany County, New York.

Fifteen years ago, at the height of the Great Recession, the County government went into severe cost-cutting mode and eliminated its economic development department. New groups began popping up to fill the vacuum and within 10 years there were over 50 separate organizations engaged in some form of economic development in the county. With clear evidence that jobs and investment were being lost to neighboring counties in New York’s Capital Region and no single point of contact to coordinate economic development-related activities, it was evident that something needed to be done.

It Starts With a Plan

In 2018, the new Albany County Executive, Dan McCoy, asked business leaders to serve on an advisory council to help turn the situation around and retained Camoin Associates (Camoin) to work with the council to develop an economic development strategic plan.

The plan provided a detailed five-year blueprint for action. Among other items, it identified targeted and emerging industry sectors, called for a robust Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) program, provided messaging to drive public and private investments, and together with Bergmann Associates, inventoried the state of infrastructure and land use throughout the county.

A central feature of the plan was a call to establish a new economic development entity to coordinate and marshal the efforts of multiple stakeholders.

This became such a critical need that Camoin, with help of the County government and business community, began outlining an ideal corporate structure for this new entity even before the strategic plan was released in early 2020. By the time the pandemic hit, Albany County was prepared.

County Executive McCoy asked Kevin O’Connor, a respected former businessman and civic leader, to come out of retirement to help form the new group, hire staff, and implement the strategic plan. Camoin provided management advisory services, including resource development, and developing the Capital Region’s COVID-19 business reopening plan, which was the first in the state.

The new group, incorporated as the Advance Albany County Alliance, quickly moved to support existing businesses. It managed emergency support funding for small businesses, assumed control of the County’s business revolving fund, and with help of local municipal Industrial Development Agencies (IDAs), established the first countywide business retention and expansion program.

Businesses took note. By late 2021, Advance Albany County Alliance was well-positioned to compete for a legacy project in one of its newly targeted industries, green manufacturing. Again, Camoin was asked to assist by conducting an economic impact analysis to help structure a proposed project. And, in 2022, the County was proud to announce that Plug Power, a green hydrogen fuel cell manufacturer, would be investing in manufacturing facilities and hiring 1,600+ workers.

The future is bright for Albany County and its Advance Albany County Alliance. We salute the County executive, legislative leaders, Kevin O’Connor and his talented team of board members and staff, local economic development leaders, and multiple stakeholders as they build on these early successes and work together to increase prosperity for all residents.

What Can We Learn from the Albany County Case Study?

Here are a few of the critical elements that contributed to Albany County’s success in rebuilding its economic development system:

  • Take the necessary time to conduct an honest situational assessment: Even if you think you understand the local economic development system and all the players, it is important to conduct a formal assessment to truly understand the strengths and gaps in the system. This helps to debunk any long-entrenched assumptions and makes for a stronger strategic and organizational plan that truly meets a need and avoids further duplication of effort.
  • Recruit the right people: When there are many entities in a community working in and around economic development there needs to be continuous communication and coordination of those efforts. It is important that the faces of a major reform initiative be individuals who are well respected, trusted, and able to bridge the different facets of economic development (small community businesses and high-growth sectors, for example). For mutual goals to be realized, there are times when elected officials can be most helpful by providing the space and support needed for the rebuilding process to evolve and take hold.
  • Establish guiding principles for maintaining the long-term vision even when immediate needs change: Expect and plan for disruptions, they WILL happen. What is important is that short-term actions align with the established vision. Vetting actions against a set of guiding principles that are consistent with the overall the vision can keep an economic development program “on the rails” during times of significant disruption.

Learn more about how Camoin Associates can help with your strategic and organizational planning and impact analysis needs.