LOWVILLE – “Naturally Lewis” can evolve from a brand created to market the county to entrepreneurs, industries and investors to a stand-alone non-profit combining the staff and programs of county development organizations and the Chamber of Lewis County Commerce.
Brittany L. Davis, executive director of the Industrial Development Agency, said an economic development strategic planning session last fall with IDA and Lewis County Development Corp. boards. had led to the realization that their “vision and projects” needed to be streamlined.
“This whole idea of starting a new 501c3 (non-profit organization) came about over the winter. I’ve done a lot of research in New York State on how other economic development organizations are created and it’s very similar to Mohawk Valley Edge in Oneida County,” Ms. Davis said. There are a number of development companies and an IDA that have all contracted with Mohawk Valley Edge – Oneida County’s main marketing organization.
Ideally, Ms. Davis said the new organization and restructuring of Naturally Lewis will make the jumble of economic development entities, their programs and their roles more clearly represented and user-friendly.
To date, as an “economic development umbrella” brand for the county, programs funded or incentivized by IDA and LCDC have been implemented by Naturally Lewis staff, who are funded and overseen by the IDA Board of Directors and is engaged to administer programs for LCDC.
This has been confusing for many businesses, but Ms Davis believes Naturally Lewis’ progression into a “one-stop-shop” organization for economic development support and incentives in the county should solve the problem.
“If you’re a business, all you need to know is if you want to grow, you need services, you’re looking for a grant, you’re looking for a loan – all you have to do is come to Naturally Lewis,” she said.
Although there cannot legally be a “merger” between the new organization and IDA or LCDC, as they each have different powers and limitations under the law, IDA staff – who , according to Ms. Davis, does not exist for most state IDAs – can be transferred to Naturally Lewis and funded through service contracts like with Mohawk Valley Edge.
IDA and LCDC will be two partner organizations of Naturally Lewis with tools to offer companies instead of development agencies.
Staff will continue to work on all existing economic development programs and develop new opportunities when and where needed.
As a nonprofit, however, Ms Davis said she could be more “creative” in finding new sources of funding beyond grants to keep programs running.
For the Chamber of Commerce, the process will be more of an absorption by Naturally Lewis rather than a merger as it will no longer exist if all current plans are implemented.
The list of paying members will tactfully migrate to Naturally Lewis and the chamber-owned tourism promotion agency – under the Adirondacks Tug Hill brand – will become a department of the Naturally Lewis organization with current chamber director Kristen F Auction at the helm.
“It will allow me to work more one-on-one with the plethora of events currently taking place in the county that are simply not getting the marketing or publicity they need to be hugely successful. It will allow me to promote their events , and then working with different groups to see how we can work together to create service packages, like combining hotel stays, restaurants, and destinations like orchards or festivals,” she said.
The chamber council should evolve into a committee concerned with tourism, Ms Davis said.
Under the new entity, Ms Davis and Ms Aucter said chamber members in all sectors of the economy should get more benefits for their $125 annual fee, including a premium level of services through the Doing Business As Lewis County program – known as DBA Lewis – which began earlier this year. The core program will remain open to any business owner who meets the application requirements.
“Our benefits are struggling because of resources,” Ms Aucter said of the chamber. “It has been difficult to improve benefits when there has been no increase in resources, but without increasing membership fees there is no way to do so.”
The benefits have consisted of providing members with referrals and publicity, networking opportunities, exposure to the chamber’s website which receives around 1,200 visits per month – up from around 90 two years ago – and as as the county’s tourism promotion agency, additional exposure for members of this industry.
Although Ms Davis and Ms Aucter said the restructuring plans were still in the discussion and planning stages, IDA staffers under the Naturally Lewis banner have shared offices with the chamber since 2019, the website of Naturally Lewis has already begun to reflect the new structuring plan and the newsletters of the two have been merged “to eliminate redundancy” in the information they provided.
“I’m 100 per cent sure this is the direction we need to go to support our community,” Ms Aucter said. “I think it will be a good decision for everyone involved.”
“We’re on a really good pace and looking to the future,” she said.
As a non-profit organization, Naturally Lewis will be required to have its own board of directors.
Currently, the council is expected to consist of up to 15 members, including two members each from IDA, LCDC and current chamber councils, at least one county legislator with up to six community and business leaders to nominate by the absorbed “network member” of the chamber.
To get there, Ms Davis said a committee of similar composition had been formed and a number of “ad hoc meetings” had been held with council presidents and county representatives.
The response has been positive and encouraging.
“Now we are seeking feedback from the community and chamber members through our online survey and we plan to have a few public comment sessions,” she said. “It’s been about six months already and it will take another six to nine months for things to solidify. It’s not just something that was planned internally with the staff.
On Tuesday, Ms Davis’ 3 p.m. presentation of the restructuring plan to the county’s finance and rules committee will be broadcast live on the Lewis County YouTube Channel.
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