Lewis Economic Development Council – Recruit. Retain. Expand.

We love our history and trivia (and scuttlebutt) here at Spotlight on Business. In fact, the question “What’s behind the name?” is key to our writing paradigm. Business decisions are, after all, informed by context and stories about legacies, symbols, and abstractions make for great reading. But it’s rare that these stories are unquestionably history in motion. When the Marketing and Communications Specialist and the Executive Director of the Lewis Economic Development Council spoke with the magazine in late August, I didn’t realize that I was speaking with two inheritors of the original American Dream.

During our chat, Brittany Davis and Eric Virkler explained how the Council’s “Naturally Lewis” efforts are quarterbacked from the county seat of America’s 21st Congressional district, Lewis County, New York: the village of Lowville. That was enough for us in the writer’s room to play (again) a spirited game of “What’s behind the name?” when the cross-border conference call came to an end. (You see, we’d already discovered that the county is named after the third Governor of New York, Morgan Lewis.) As it turns out, Nicholas Low, for whom Lowville is named, embodied the Council’s slogan: Recruit. Retain. Expand.

Low was a prominent New York City land developer and merchant – and staunch supporter of General Washington and the rebel cause during the American Revolution. Following the evacuation of the British Army and British Loyalists in 1783, Low purchased tracts of land in Upstate New York, laid out townsites, and began to develop Lowville – and nearby Watertown – by dividing his holdings to sell both land and lots. Brittany and Eric are nothing short of stewards of Low’s vision. They’re a part of a development process that’s been going strong for 235 years.

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 of the Empire State with the likes of Kraft-Heinz setting up shop inside county lines – it’s 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.

The following are highlights from our conversation which include information about Lewis County Economic Development’s incentives for entrepreneurs and small business owners, a few words about some of the major manufacturers on the ground, the “Naturally Lewis” and “Naturally Dairy” campaigns, the green future of business opportunities, and the annual Cream Cheese Festival.

Eric, Brittany – can you please tell the readers a little bit about yourselves and what Lewis County means personally to you both?   

EV: I was born and raised in Lewis County. In the middle of my previous career – I have a background in accounting and finance – I decided that community service, the idea of making Lewis County an even better place, was important to me. I became a board member for the Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corporation and that led to an interest in this work. I have worked in public service for almost 20 years now and with Lewis County Economic Development for ten years. This type of work constantly brings new challenges, not to mention a great sense of mission: to benefit our citizens.

BD: Lewis County will always be home to me. I grew up on a farm here in Lowville, New York and I have always loved the scenery, the hard-working, dedicated people, and the friendly and safe towns and villages. I have always seen the opportunities for growth in the County.  After graduating with my Masters, I came to work with Lewis County Economic Development with hopes of taking my drive and ambition and making Lewis County even better than it already is.  I am very involved in community initiatives to bring more opportunity to the County, and so far, when you hear “outsiders” say things like “Wow, things are happening in Lewis County,” you know you are going in the right direction.  Lewis County has been a great fit for me and I want to make sure it is a great fit for future generations. It’s our aim to continue to inspire young people to live, work, and play here in Lewis County. 

I have always said – even through high school and college – that I wanted to help my community and be a part of the growth in some way.  This opportunity to work for the Economic Development office could not have come at a better time: there is a renewed drive to better the community and it felt like the perfect fit for me. Like Eric said, working for the Council gives you opportunities to learn something new each and every day because every day brings something new to Lewis County.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that I’m a small business owner with a young family who is considering Lewis County as the new home base for my growing company. What do you tell me?

EV: I’d tell you how Lewis County has a great balance. It has a very high quality of life, it’s a family-oriented and driven community, and it has always offered strong business opportunities. The four season climate is enjoyable – at most times – and we do not experience unusual weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes, and etcetera. Our economy is based on agriculture with a strong core of manufacturing, tourism, and service-based businesses.

BD: I’d add that Lewis County is strategically located in the perfect spot of Northern New York. We’re 40 miles from Canada, a short drive to several major interstates, and anywhere between a two and six hour drive to Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton, Toronto, Montreal, Boston and New York City.  We have ample water and land for natural resource-based businesses – and like Eric said, we have a great work-life balance with plenty of outdoor recreation, safe and friendly neighborhoods, an excellent New York State public school system, and most importantly, some of the hardest working people you will find anywhere – we have a very motivated and dedicated workforce here.  People here are dedicated to their careers and dedicated to Lewis County.

If you are looking for the perfect place to raise your family Lewis County is the place for you. You can live in walkable villages where it is safe for your kids to walk to school, where there are plenty of outdoor recreational opportunities to accommodate the four seasons, where your neighbors are friendly and helpful, and where a supportive business climate and county government are waiting to help you. The people of Lewis County are famously extremely inviting to new residents and businesses. It really is the perfect spot for anyone who has in mind the homegrown business approach. You will find the support you need to grow and expand your business organically in Lewis County.

The Lewis Economic Development Council has put in place some very tempting incentives for entrepreneurs and businesses to set-up shop in the County – care to tell the readers about those opportunities?

BD: Absolutely. The Lewis County Economic Development Council and the Industrial Development Agency offer various tax incentives for new business and/or business expansions. These incentives include: payment in lieu of taxes, sales tax exemptions, and mortgage tax exemptions.  We also offer IDA sale-lease back transactions, and manage a small business revolving loan fund.  We are currently in the process of acquiring multiple spaces for business growth and expansions around the county, such as a commerce park and vacant buildings. Because they will be owned by a governmental agency, the lease options could be very affordable for new businesses or expanding businesses.

Can you please tell the readers more about recent infrastructure development and projects in Lewis County like the Lyon Falls Mill Revitalization and Commerce Park?

EV: We have been in the process of developing the County’s first commerce park to spark business growth.  Many of our local businesses are in need of expansions, but it may not be feasible for their current location.  Providing location opportunities for not only our established businesses, but new businesses as well, is vital to growth of Lewis County.

We are currently embarking on the fourth and final stage of demolition of the old Lyons Falls Paper Mill site in Lyons Falls, New York.  The nine-acre property falls under the Brownfield Opportunity Area, which could allow for potential tax credits in the future, but is also a spectacular waterfront property on the Black River – and is directly adjacent to a hydroelectric facility, which could produce inexpensive power for a business.  Lewis County is always eyeing infrastructure improvements in our county to support business and residential growth for our communities. 

How far and wide is the “Naturally Lewis” brand known?   

BD: I said before that Lewis County will always be home – and that is also the case for many ‘Lewis County born and raised’ who live outside of Lewis County or in different states or countries.  People like to keep tabs on what is happening back in their hometown, and naturallylewis.com is a great way to do that.  We showcase their friends, family, and neighbors and their successful business ventures, the beauty of our county, and the many reasons why you should live, work and play here.

On the other hand, with “Naturally Lewis” still being a somewhat new brand in the economic development world, we are making a name for ourselves throughout the North Country region and getting recognition through state-wide economic development initiatives and organizations. The brand was created to promote the county as the “natural choice for business success,” but it has evolved to become so much more than that.  It is a natural choice: to live, raise a family, be with friends, and explore new places.  It is a lifestyle brand, it is our local foods brand, and it is our identity to be proud of.  We have natural resources and natural beauty and that is what makes the brand so special.  It is all encompassing and when businesses start here or locate here, they see the value in the branding, the promotion of businesses, and promotion of Lewis County as a whole.   

EV: In a lot of ways the brand has been known worldwide for a long time. I always encourage people in big business, entrepreneurs, and small business owners with families to check out naturallylewis.com because it really answers the question “Why Lewis County?” but people have known about our resources – great land and great weather for agricultural activities of all kinds – for generations. Some of the major employers in the County, like Kraft-Heinz, have really put us on the map in the business world. In fact, Philadelphia Cream Cheese is proudly made here in Lewis County.

We are also a huge timber resource and that’s been good to the manufacturing sector here, as well. A number of facilities in the County produce speciality paper, paperboard, packaging, wood products – that sort of thing.

I understand that the economy in Lewis County revolves around the success of your farms, 200 of which are family-owned dairy farms. Can you please tell the readers about the “Naturally Dairy” campaign?

BD: It’s true that dairy agriculture continues to be the backbone of our economy in 2018. Without the dairy industry, our economy and communities would not be where they are today.  Although the industry is currently struggling it will continue to be our backbone as many of our small businesses here in Lewis County were established to support the dairy industry.  We are currently in the middle of a County-wide dairy campaign called “Naturally Dairy” to help promote the industry and educate the community on the impact the dairy industry has on our economy as a whole.  We will continue to support our dairy farmers, but also hope to see more and more value-added agriculture to help offset any potential burdens on the agricultural industry as a whole in the future.  We have a thriving winery, apple orchard, breweries, hop and lavender farm, goat farms, honey, produce farmers, and more, to help continue to sustain the agricultural industry.  Lewis County thrives off both types of agriculture and we will continue to do whatever we can to support farmers. 

How has becoming a largely green community impacted jobs and everyday life in Lewis County – and what does that mean for the County’s future growth?   

EV: Lewis County is a strong supporter of alternative energy production. We have the potential for additional wind farms and commercial scale solar opportunities are in the pipeline. These green energy businesses will begin to create a larger segment of our employment and will encourage new skill development to work in these operations. The projects also bring enhanced property tax revenue to improve the overall community.

As the Council’s Marketing Specialist, what do you find yourself promoting most often to attract visitors to Lewis County, Brittany?

BD: We get many visitors throughout the year, whether it is for our snowmobiling and ATV trails, our famous “Cream Cheese Festival” to support our major employer and producer of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Kraft Heinz, our State horse trail system, the many lakes, streams, and rivers, and hunting opportunities – and more.  Many of these people end up staying here, buying a camp here, or retiring here.  People see the value in Lewis County.  They may not be from Lewis County, but when they are here, they call it home.  Couple that with our strategic location, proximity to major U.S. and Canadian markets, an extremely dedicated and hard-working work force, plenty of natural resources in various forms, a very friendly and inviting business climate, and you get the perfect mix of life and work.  Now a days, the life-work balance is extremely important to businesses and companies, and Lewis County is the perfect spot to grow your business and enjoy a balanced lifestyle. It is the natural choice for business success.   

By David MacDonald