Staying the course

The door had barely hit the underperforming economic development director Suzanne Holt in the butt when her successor was announced on Monday. Clearly, for the Pat Ryan administration, approaching its 100th  day in office next week, building the county’s long-dormant economy is a top priority. But did they consider all the options?

Like Holt, a deputy county executive before her appointment as economic office director some five years ago, Lisa Berger is an insider with stops in Cornell Cooperative and tourism and lately the office of employment and training before her recent promotion to her $97,000 a year job. On the private sector side, she’s a former director of the New Paltz Chamber of Commerce.

It’s an impressive resume, but Berger lacks, as did Holt before her, any definable record in economic development. Perhaps the whole, experience in agriculture (Cornell) tourism and employment, will be greater than its parts. Let’s hope so.

Left unsaid in Monday’s executive press release was whether the administration seriously considered seeking out a tested, professional, accomplished economic development specialist to jumpstart this dormant economy. Racing to reelection in only about nine weeks, perhaps Ryan didn’t think he had time to reinvent the wheel from scratch.

Surely, (don’t call him Shirley) Ryan knows that economic development has been something of an oxymoron in Ulster County ever since IBM pulled up stakes now 25 years ago. “It will take time,” former Lt. Gov. Stan Lundine said on a local visit shortly after Big Blue’s departure was formally confirmed. A quarter century, Stan? And still little or nothing to show after spending millions over the years.

Worse, no one has ever been held accountable for its failures to produce, not the legislature, not the executive branch, and certainly not the department of economic development. Other than saying she was working hard at attracting developers she wouldn’t name, Holt, like her predecessor, was never held to account nor did she issue annual reports of jobs created. Were there any standards? Not that I knew of. I like the late George Steinbrenner’s take on that: “First,” he said, “we look at the standings.”

Ryan knows the home team’s record on economic development, “one of the worst in New York State,” he said at a recent town hall meeting in Kingston.

It is time for a sense of urgency. We’re playing for high stakes here, real quality of life stuff. Ryan seems to understand that economic development, which produces and supports good-paying jobs (at least north of $40,000 a year) with basic benefits like people in the public sector enjoy, is an absolute necessity for promoting the kind of growth and progress he envisions.

As for Lisa Berger, she’s smart, personable and a hard worker. People like her. But as LBJ once said of JFK’s Whiz Kids, “I just wish some of these guys had run for sheriff someplace.” For the sake of all of us, I wish her much success.

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