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North Country Chamber president details annual business survey

North Country Chamber President Garry Douglas (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
North Country Chamber President Garry Douglas (file)

Every year, the North Country Chamber surveys its members to gauge how they feel about the regional, state and national economy. It uses the responses to formulate a Business Confidence Index indicating how many anticipate economic growth. This year the overall business confidence is 90% with 71% anticipating growth over the coming year. Chamber President Garry Douglas tells WAMC North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley he wasn’t surprised, but there were some concerns expressed about potential economic problems.

Douglas: I wasn’t surprised in the sense that we knew the underlying strengths in the area and we knew that business was very much aware of those because it’s part of it: the strength in the real estate and construction sectors; 2.7% unemployment in Clinton County in December which means an unprecedently high level of employment in the area. The record increases in sales tax revenue. I mean you can look across the board. Growth in manufacturing. The success in economic development. But we know that there are things nationally, and they reflected that as well, that they weren’t so optimistic about the national economy as they are about the area economy. But they showed that they care more about the area, that they’re more driven by what’s happening in their own back yard and their own businesses.

Bradley: While there is that good baseline confidence, and it’s a regional confidence, the businesses that you did survey do have some concerns and they include staffing shortages, inflation, supply chain issues, border restrictions. Most of those are federal oriented or binational issues. How do the regional businesses want those issues addressed?

There are some dark clouds on the horizon. One of them certainly is continued interference of crossings at the border. I mean way far away above anything else 98% said number one federal priority is to get Canada and the U.S. back on track to moving towards normalization of border crossings. So that’s a continued concern. Inflation. They cited that as the number two concern is rising inflation. But interestingly beyond just saying in a general sense it’s a national problem and it’s a priority we asked a sub-question does it impact your business. And 78% said rising inflation is impacting their particular business operation. The rising cost of their goods for example and other impacts. So that’s important to know it’s not theoretical. We hear about supply chains. Number three federal concern is that more be done on national-international supply chains. But in 70, 71%, amazing I thought, 71% said that supply chain problems are directly impacting their business. Contractors not getting supplies. Manufacturers having delays with parts that are coming in that they need to maintain their production lines. It’s from the big to the small that those are having impacts. And there’s no question you know we know that the 2.7% percent unemployment in Clinton County as of December, but that workforce shortage, that shortage of staffing services 60% said that’s having a direct impact on their businesses causing them to have fewer hours. And we’ve seen that with restaurants and businesses that we enjoy. And then we just lost our United Express Air service. Not because the market wasn’t strong, it was incredibly strong. And we were working with United on some new campaigns this year and looking forward to working with them on servicing the World University Games next year in Lake Placid. They can’t meet staff. The ferry reduced its days and hours of service down in Essex County across Lake Champlain because of staffing shortages. So it’s starting to affect everything that we do.

Garry Douglas, the state Labor Department’s Farm Wage Board recently approved lowering the agricultural exemption on overtime from 60 hours to 40 hours. Is the Chamber following this issue at all?

We’ve been very supportive of our friends at the Farm Bureau that we work with very closely and long have. Let them take the lead but we agree. We agree with (Assemblyman) Bill Jones who has been a very strong advocate on this issue. You know it sounds good to the uninformed. It sounds good to the downstaters from Manhattan and Brooklyn who have never seen a cow let alone a dairy farm operation and don’t understand. First of all farmers, unlike almost anybody else that’s in any kind of business, don’t get to set their prices. And most of them are struggling to maintain family businesses particularly the family dairy farms for example in a region like ours. They care about their farm workers. And their farm workers want and like and choose the kind of employment that they’re doing. And by and large they’re saying we understand we’re going to lose our jobs entirely if the farms we work at are made to do this because they can’t. They can’t just pay time and a half after 40 hours when they need us to do that harvesting or get the cows milked or get the apples in. It’s one of those disconnects between reality and somebody’s ideal of what it should be like. Agriculture, particularly in the dairy sector, is not like any other business in the country.

We were mentioning the border earlier. What’s the potential impact of federal vaccination requirements for cross border truckers? My understanding is both the Canadian and U.S. governments have now mandated that.

The problem with that particular situation not only is it’s certain effect on supply chains, which we’re hearing are already impacting negatively, everybody in business and affecting inflation. So there’s a crossover there. If these truckers were such a threat and causing such a spread of COVID then why did you let them for almost two years as essential workers go back and forth, by the way with no incident that I’ve ever heard of because of the isolated way they work and the limited interaction, why didn’t you do it earlier? Well it’s because you knew and believed correctly that it was not really a problem. So why all the overkill now on that? It’s because it’s something that Canada started that the U.S. followed. But it’s a wrong thing. It’s a mistake. While we will continue to point that out I have no illusions that there’s political will to reverse that in particular. So let’s refocus on moving forward together on how we start to get the border fluid again. Put some metrics out there and some planning out there to make sure that by gosh by the time we get to summer we’re back to normalcy.

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