Lewis County, NY – The Natural Choice

Lewis County is nestled in the scenic Black River Valley region of Northern New York, and is easily accessible from several major interstates, making it within a day’s drive from major Northeast cities, such as New York City, Boston, and Buffalo. Plus, it is only 40 miles south of the Canadian border.

Lewis County, NY, offers some of the safest communities in New York State to plant your family roots and watch them grow. Safe and quiet villages, with excellent school systems, and recreational opportunities with engaging communities, are why Lewis County is the natural choice to live, work and play. 

We chat with Brittany Davis, Jenna Kraeger and Cheyenne Steria, of the Lewis County Economic Development team, to find out why the Lewis County area has been the natural choice for doing business for over 216 years.

~

The area now falling in the jurisdiction of Lewis County, New York, has changed jurisdiction many times. Beginning as part of the originally enormous Albany County in 1683, then, after one of the many times that Albany County was divided, becoming part of Tryon County in 1772 (which was renamed to Montgomery County in 1784). Next, present-day Lewis County was part of Herkimer County in 1791, then part of Oneida County in 1798, and finally, assumed its current name and borders in 1805. 

And while Lewis County is “Naturally” connected to its historic economic roots – its agricultural and resource-based abundance and productivity still does more than its share, fueling the trade and industry supremacy with a number of international businesses setting up shop inside county lines. It is also a progressively “green community,” with wind, water, and solar projects reshaping the idea of local opportunity in a county of roughly 30,000 residents.

In the county, the population is spread out, with 27.80% of the residents under the age of 18, 58.40% are aged from 18 to 64, and 13.80% who are 65 years of age or older, with the median resident age of 37 years, according to census data from 2000. 

Part of the charm that makes up the communities of Lewis County for those looking to live, work, and do business in the area, are the limitless array of year-round attractions and activities that also draw many tourists to the area, which helps local businesses. Plus, Lewis County’s low cost of living, excellent quality of life ratings, and safe, friendly neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are home to many friendly and welcoming people who are proud to call Lewis County home, and the Lewis County Economic Development Team, are working hard to ensure that you and your business do too.

The following are highlights from our conversation, which includes information about Lewis County Economic Development’s incentives for entrepreneurs and small business, its Naturally Lewis brand, and how they are championing the growth of a community where people want to live, work, build business and play.

Lewis County Economic Development’s forward thinking and relationship building, connects people, businesses, partnerships, and resources, to grow their county effectively and efficiently – by attracting new business to the area and helping those currently in the area grow and prosper.

Spotlight on Business: We thought that we would start off our conversation getting to know a little more about the Lewis County Economic Development Team. Their professional backgrounds, and about their life outside of promoting Lewis County, if there is such a thing.

Brittany Davis: While receiving my masters in organizational leadership from SUNY Potsdam, I was the assistant swim coach for the men’s and women’s teams at SUNY Potsdam.  After that, I worked in the print and design industry for a few years, continued to coach swimming, spent a short stint in Colorado (which gave me a whole new perspective and appreciation for Lewis County), and then was hired as the Marketing & Communications Specialist for LCED when I returned home. 

Cheyenne Steria: I’m kind of a native of the area moving here all the way from Jefferson County when I was six, said jokingly by Cheyenne as Jefferson County is right next door. I completed my undergraduate degree in math and business. I took a roundabout path to economic development through engineering related project management, and financial roles within the manufacturing sector. I eventually found my way into economic development through the Chamber of Commerce’s Leadership Academy, and I just love it, obviously, and it’s something we kind of live and breathe in our office. 

Outside of work, I have three children under six years old. So that keeps me busy. I’m an avid outdoors person. I like to hike and mountain bike and climb mountains. So, Lewis County is really a perfect fit for that because I can just jaunt off to do those things or I can do a lot of those things right outside my back door by myself if I need to. 

Jenna Kraeger: I was born and raised in southern Lewis County, went away for college, and graduated with a degree in Business Management and a minor in Marketing from Cazenovia College. After college I worked for a startup distillery on St. Lawrence River doing events and marketing for about four years. I then moved to Rochester to start a new journey and found myself in the construction and technology industries doing association management work, which really inspired my love for economic development and workforce development. I am very grateful that I found my way back to Lewis County. My time away really gave me a new perspective on what assets are here and what opportunities are here – not only for people living here, but for businesses as well.

Spotlight on Business:  What is the responsibility of the Lewis County Economic Development team? 

Cheyenne Steria: At the end of 2019, our former executive director got elected to county treasurer and advised that he would be leaving the organization. At that time, Brittany and I were the only other full-time employees, so we, along with our board, went through a kind of reorganization project, which saw Brittany take over the role of executive director. Brittany is perfectly aligned to be the face of the organization as she is excellent with people and great at communicating our message.

As for me, I am less ‘peoplely’, so as director of finance and incentives, I’m happy to control our finances, make sure everything behind the scenes is working properly, read the fine print on pilots and other incentives that we offer, and to make sure everything is in line here. Which is a role that suits me well.

In early spring of 2020, Brittany and I went through kind of a comprehensive hiring process. Brittany and I took assessments to see how we were together, to understand why we work together so well, and built our finding into our search for another team member to take on the Economic Development Specialist role. The successful candidate would take on many of the marketing initiatives that Brittany was doing before she was promoted to executive director, but also expand the role to include programming. We had, and still have, big visions for what we want our office to do. We went through the hiring process, and we’re so lucky to find Jenna, and that she was available and wanted to come back to Lewis County. She has been like the missing piece of the puzzle that fits perfectly. We were so happy to bring her on board, and it’s been an amazing journey ever since.

Brittany Davis: Our 3-person team and 7-person board is responsible for the overall growth of Lewis County, making it an ideal place where people want to live, work, build business and play. We are responsible for creating partnerships, connecting available resources, promoting Lewis County, and engaging in strategic funding development that both benefits the organization and our communities. We create programs, initiatives, and policies to seek and lead new and existing development in Lewis County. 

Spotlight on Business: Let’s talk about the Naturally Lewis brand and marketing campaign? What is meant by Naturally Lewis? What does Lewis County mean to the three of you personally? 

Cheyenne Steria: I feel a little bit out of my element on the marketing side. So, I will leave that answer up to our marketing gurus Brittany and Jenna. As for what Lewis County means to me personally, I’m the oldest one on our team. When I came back to Lewis County, through the Louis County Leadership Academy, I feel like the tide was starting to turn at that point nine years ago and it seems like there was kind of momentum shift from the negative ‘If he’s doing well, I’m doing worse, attitude” to something much more positive for the community starting with that class. It’s just been an exciting turn in the tide. I think we have younger, more motivated people looking to get involved, looking to do things and get creative. We’re a very historically traditional conservative community and that’s great, that’s our roots. And that’s what we can build on. But I think we’ve gotten much more creative in the way we’re thinking about things and the way we’re trying to attack things and move forward. And that’s exciting to me. I am not somebody who wants to start my own business necessarily and have to do the nights and weekends and all the other things that are part of living the entrepreneurial life. But it’s exciting to get to be a little piece of other people’s journeys and get to help make that happen for them and help support what they’re doing.

Brittany Davis: Naturally Lewis was launched in 2016 as the economic development brand for Lewis County. Our natural beauty, abundance of natural resources, makes Lewis County the ideal place to plant the seeds for business growth. The brand promotes community, supports businesses and entrepreneurs, and is a platform that people and businesses have affiliated with when they do business in Lewis County. 

Jenna Kraeger: Naturally Lewis really provides us with a platform to effectively market what assets we have available in the county, and what really makes it a natural choice to live, work and build business here. But more than that, it has really become a symbol of pride for our community – the stories that we tell really resonate with the people that live here and work here. When they hear about a business that has a new product, they’re genuinely excited for that business in the community as a whole, which is really fun to see that come to life. Personally, Lewis County has been a place with not only natural beauty and assets, but that sense of community, which is what really sets us apart. Unfortunately, it is not quantifiable. The best part is just telling those stories about the people that are doing amazing things and building the legacy of Lewis County for future generations.

Spotlight on Business: It goes without saying the Lewis Economic Development Team is laser focused on promoting entrepreneurship. Can you tell us about some of the incentives for entrepreneurs and businesses to set-up shop in Lewis County? Can you talk about Lewis County’s “DBA Lewis County” and what it is all about?

Cheyenne Steria: So, as Naturally Lewis our office handles economic development, and one of our tools we like to say is that we’re an industrial development agency as well. And so, New York state allows us to grant tax incentives so payments in lieu of taxes. Pilots allow us to do property tax abatements for projects. We can also offer sales tax incentives, sales tax abatements and mortgage recording tax incentives. The IDA can’t loan their own money, but we’ve worked with USDA and other groups to set up a couple of loan funds that are revolving so all the monies paid back, both interest and principal, then get reloaned. We work with different grant programs, either through the state or sometimes local grant programs that we can connect businesses with, as well as having a ton of regional partners, especially on the loan front. We work with North Country Alliance, the Development Authority of the North Country, Lake Champlain-Lake George Regional Planning Board (LCLGRPB), and other regional partners. So basically, the more businesses that we can connect with that are in the development or growth phase, we can help them navigate in the right direction or find the piece of the puzzle that can assist them with their project. We can show them what we can offer and can do for them, but it is extremely important that we talk with them and try to hone in on what will be the best for their particular situation.

Jenna Kraeger: With that list of incentives mentioned, we’ve been a little creative with some of our programs as well. Thinking back to a couple months ago, we came up with a winter design challenge grant program that was all locally funded through the Pratt Northam Foundation and Lewis County itself to incentivize local businesses to be creative with new and existing outdoor seating. Such as adding firepit or truly anything that could bolster their business for the winter months throughout the pandemic. They of course must show that they were putting some skin in the game, but we provided up to $1,000 in matching grants to local businesses to get creative. On a similar note, regarding our new entrepreneurship program that we are launching sooner than expected since there has been such a need for it. The idea there is we have been utilizing technical assistance partners for a long time, so this program actually fills the gap for the entrepreneurs and streamlines the approach. The entrepreneur fills out a survey in order to gauge their needs, we then interview them and create milestones, so that they have a pathway to launch or scale up their business. And what that looks like is we can connect them with local partners that provide free or low-cost programs, and also local consultants in several fields like legal and financial, all the way to marketing and networking opportunities. As we go through the program and hit those milestones, we can actually incentivize them to meet with local consultants to continue to grow their business, which will in turn promote local businesses and supply forever clients to create that ecosystem that will live on as that business continues to grow. It’s really exciting to meet with these new businesses, new potential businesses and entrepreneurs, to give them a sense of confidence in the process as they open their business, or even if it’s a small business that’s looking to create a new product line or bring on some new employees. So, there’s not a one size fits all approach to this program, which is what makes it fun. And we’ll be changing and developing the process as well as, as the program grows.

As for the name of the program, DBA Lewis County, which was actually coined by Cheyenne, was kind of a fun way to market and promote the program.  It has its own unique logo and webpage ()https://naturallylewis.com/initiatives/dba ) to promote that program.

Spotlight on Business: Can you please tell the readers more about Property Redevelopment Initiatives and projects happening in Lewis County like the Lyonsdale Property and the Lyon Falls Mill project?

Brittany Davis:  We are focused on site redevelopments that promote mixed use operations and growth within our five key industries. Lyonsdale Property and the Lyons Falls Property both held what were once thriving businesses, in Southern Lewis County. Unfortunately, with the changing business climate, both the paper mill and biomass facility shut down. We were left with vacant properties – one of which has taken 10 years to demolish and clean-up. Through investment and sound marketing, we are able to put these properties back into productive use.  With both properties, we have seen growth through entrepreneurship, not necessarily a large developer or company. This goes to show that Lewis County is very business friendly for the “ground up” operations – we are willing to take on a challenge if the entrepreneur is! 

Cheyenne Steria:  We currently have an RFP in process for Lyonsdale Property, and we think we have a path forward for a much-needed USDA certified meat processing facility to be located there. It is next to impossible to find meat in the supermarket, from the State of New York, especially chicken. So, this is a priority industry to get going. We are excited about their product and development plan and they’re ready to sign an agreement with the county and have the property turned over to them so they can have the facility opened by next spring and scale up from there.

The Lyons Falls Property has seen the Lewis County Development Corporation work tirelessly, getting grants and working with contractors over the last 10 years to get what was formerly paper mills blight, demolished, environmentally cleaned up. We have recently completed a little bit of landscaping and beautification and are getting ready to start to market that property. In saying that we do have a creamery operating out of the one existing building on our property, processing all sorts of dairy related products from locally sourced milk.  So, there’s definitely some local foods, synergies happening in the area and it would be great to see that continue.

Spotlight on Business: What are some of the challenges that you have faced in promoting Lewis County? 

Brittany Davis: I see challenges as the opportunities in promoting Lewis County. We may be further away from large highways and interstates, airports, and rail, but in our eyes, those are also opportunities.  Post pandemic, we can leverage our wide-open spaces, fresh country air, housing stock with large yards, recreational opportunities in the most rural part of NY, availability of land for business development, as assets in Lewis County. 

Jenna Kraeger:  It is true that we do not have all the assets that a big city has. But that’s also what makes Lewis County unique. We aren’t trying to be somebody or something that we’re not. We have wide open spaces, we have outdoor recreation, we have the tight knit community, you’re not going to find in other places. And what some might view as a negative, we really view as a positive. And it might sound cliche, but we are in the middle of everywhere we have just about anywhere around us. In a one-to-two-hour drive, you can get to pretty much any scenery: major cities, mountains, lakes, and rivers. So, we are uniquely positioned to promote ourselves in that way. And with the pandemic, I think we can view ourselves as a great place for remote work. Offering an amazing work life balance, giving lots of opportunities to shift a negative into a positive.

Spotlight on Business: How has Covid-19 affected your ability to promote Lewis County? Business had to pivot to online during the pandemic so, tell us about Lewis County’s mynny.biz platform that is helping local small businesses get their business online. 

Jenna Kraeger:  The idea for Lewis County’s mynny.biz platform was an idea before the pandemic even started, but the need for it by small businesses was exacerbated by the pandemic. A lot of our small businesses rely on foot traffic and word of mouth marketing. So, this was kind of the push to say you need to diversify your marketing message and we are here to help. Naturally Lewis, partnered with a local business, Coughlin, who offers printing and web design services. They decided that they could create a new website platform specific to small businesses. That would be a low-cost alternative, with local support, and beautiful web pages that are simple and easy to use. So, we are offering an incentive to small businesses for the first year to sign on to the platform, to show them that the benefit was there to get online. As of July 2021, we had a full year in since the program was launched. Since the launch we have had 18 local businesses set up on the platform. And we have a long list of businesses to still reach out to for the platform. But we really see it as a huge benefit. The packages available are from one-page websites all the way up to a full ecommerce shop for businesses, which really gives them the opportunities to explain the reach of their business, products, and services with a website at a very low-cost. If you look at other website builders that are out there, there’s not really a comparison because of the local support that these businesses receive with such affordable options to help them grow their businesses.

Spotlight on Business: Tells us about how Lewis County is actively helping to preserve agriculture and embracing sustainable and renewable energies like solar power? 

Brittany Davis:  Lewis County is a leader in agriculture and renewable energy. We are currently balancing both industries, while embracing renewable energy to meet the State’s clean energy goals, but also preserving our most prime soils to preserve agriculture. Through policy development, we have found a way to encourage both through creative incentives. 

Cheyenne Steria:  Renewable energy has been an interesting one to grapple with. Years ago, many hydroelectric facilities branched along the rivers of Lewis County, and for the most part they’re largely unseen, and unless you go looking for them, you don’t see them. And so that was kind of our first introduction into using our natural resources to export energy, because we can’t possibly use all the energy that we’re producing in Lewis Counties. About 20 years ago, Lewis County began experience with wind farming – with the Maple Ridge Wind Farm now being the largest wind farm in the state of New York, operating hundreds of windmills. The benefits to the area go far beyond the energy that is created, as landowners benefit from the leases on the farmland that most of these windmills sit on. That, and the relatively small footprint of each windmill, make for a good fit for both the agriculture and renewable energy industries in the county.

 

With New York state’s energy goals, solar in Lewis County has become a huge interest. Obviously, you are not going to find 40 acres of land in New York City for a solar garden but looking outside of the city you are able to find wide open fields, which is something that we have in Lewis County. We are not here to tell people what to do with their land, that’s the job of planning and the county, to work with their residents to come up with laws that make sense. But as an industrial development and economic development agency, we need to look out for all of our industries. We need to make sure that we correctly determine how we incentivize these things, as we try to balance different industries and walk that fine line of making sure we’re not taking away landowner’s rights. For example, making sure that a dairy farmer that is struggling, has an option to participate in some of these things. We must also recognize that we don’t want our entire landscape filled with solar panels, and there’s economic devastation to happen if that happens. Nobody’s going to want to live in an area that is covered with solar panels.

Jenna Kraeger:  We do have a Smart Growth Solar web page that is focused on educating both developers and landowners, what to look for, or what they should be looking for, in a successful project, and what Lewis County policies for renewable energy projects, and we encourage people to check that out: https://naturallylewis.com/initiatives/smart-growth-solar.

Spotlight on Business: A community is as much about its small and medium size business as it is about their residents. What Lewis County Economic Development projects are currently on the go that are focused on the Retention and Expansion of Key Industries. 

Brittany Davis:  We survey our businesses on an annual basis to both see what the opportunities and future of businesses are, but to also mitigate any closures. This has been a helpful tool for us to collect data. For example, last year’s survey showed that close to half of our businesses surveyed stated that they were looking to expand either their products, services, square footage or workforce.  This shows us what programming we need to create to support our growing businesses. 

Jenna Kraeger: Our Business Retention and Expansion program as a whole, is really focused on reaching out to our local businesses and seeing what their needs are. Last year was our first time doing a more formal approach to this; we sent out a survey and were able to get the intel as to why people are expanding and what types of financial needs they might have to move those things forward. It’s kind of the other end of the entrepreneur spectrum of the small business looking to scale up. So, it’s kind of the middle of the road businesses that we need to make sure that we’re checking in on an annual basis, to make sure that they’re in a spot to stay in our communities and in a lot of ways, is more important than attracting the next big business to our area.

Spotlight on Business: If we have business owners reading this article that are thinking about relocating their business, we have one simple question, why should they consider Lewis County? 

Brittany Davis: I always say, if you want to make a large impact in a small community, Lewis County is the place to be. You can be a large fish in a small pond, and even the smallest businesses can have a large impact on the quality of life, tourism, and overall economic impact of Lewis County. There is an opportunity to make a large impact in Lewis County. 

Cheyenne Steria: I think the support system that we are offering, I think the fact that we’re trying to model walking with a business and supporting a business throughout their process. And how that process then snowballs, and other businesses walk alongside of synergistic businesses. That’s exciting to me. We are proud of what we offer here in Lewis County and businesses need to know that there are just endless opportunities to be part of what we are doing here.

Jenna Kraeger:  When you think about going to a new area and starting a new business, the three things that you think about are living, working, and building your business there, right. We really encompass the first two, really well. It’s a great place to live and we have incredible people that are dedicated, and they love to live here, which really drives their motivation to work here as well. I don’t think that you’ll find anyone here that isn’t excited about what their company or their own businesses are doing for their community. Everyone is focused on giving back and that is what I think makes us unique.

Spotlight on Business: When you live in an area you have something that is special to you about where you live and work. In saying that, what do each of you find yourself promoting most often when asked about Lewis County professionally or personally. 

Brittany Davis: I find myself promoting the unique businesses in our County. Depending on where someone is spending their time, I will recommend the must see or must go-to shops, restaurants, or locations in that area.  I also promote the hidden gems of Lewis County, like that “off the beaten path” waterfall spot, or scenic location, or the manufacturing operations unique to Lewis County. For example, Qubica AMF, who produces 97% of the world’s bowling pins, is right in Lowville, NY! 

Cheyenne SteriaFor me it is a simple answer, ‘Work Life Balance.’ I love my job and I love the area that I live in and all that it offers, and I always share that with others when they ask about Lewis County.

Jenna Kraeger:  I grew up here and I still learn new things about Lewis County daily. Things like, there’s hidden waterfalls or there’s new businesses that popped up. I love to show people that live here, that there’s opportunities here that they don’t necessarily think about daily. But as for new people coming to the community, I find myself promoting outdoor recreation and local foods the most. literally put the two together, you can go for a hike and travel the cuisine trail and grab a bite along the way and finish with a local craft beer or seltzer, which is it’s pretty cool.

Spotlight on Business: What is next for the Naturally Lewis brand and Lewis County, what do you have coming up in 2021 and beyond that you can share with us?

Brittany Davis: We will continue to focus on our strategic plan, which includes building partnerships, engaging in research and education, developing sound economic development policies, increased outreach and visibility and strategic funding development. Specific initiatives include entrepreneurship, business retention and expansion, site developments, and some future initiatives for 2022 include workforce development and engaging with our schools and youth on the economic opportunities within Lewis County. 

Cheyenne Steria:  We have a good handful of really grassroots projects that we’ll be partnering on that are exciting to me. That’s something that was one of our strategic focuses this year. You know, we were not fooling ourselves that we’re not going to go out and land an Amazon or a huge manufacturing plant to relocate Lewis County, I mean, if that happens, great, but our focus is on the grassroots and helping our existing businesses level up, and helping new businesses start. I am excited about these projects for the remainder of 2021 and as we go into 2022.

It is easy to see why Lewis County is home to the ideal balance of people, prosperity, and the planet. Throughout our conversations with all three members of the Lewis County Economic Development team, the one thing that really stands out was the acknowledgement that they are not a standalone organization. They partner with businesses and a bunch of other organizations, like their county planning office, workforce development, and Chamber of Commerce, to get things done.

Lewis Country is a place where play inspires work – offering the perfect blend of thriving industries, natural resources, and an energized workforce and focused business support structure, making it the natural choice to plant the seeds of business growth and expansion.

 

by Ryan Myson