Tioga County has a population of over 51,000 and is comprised of fifteen towns and villages located just north of the Pennsylvania border, along the Susquehanna River in the Southern Finger Lakes region. The largely rural region has easy access to larger urban areas and is part of the metropolitan statistical area of Binghamton, New York.
Research indicates that as much as eighty-four percent of the planet’s population will be living in cities by 2100. The urban lifestyle may be the future of the globe, but rural communities remain integral contributors to a country’s economic prosperity and social well-being.
How a rural community views itself, its opportunities and its competitive advantage requires a leadership role from local government as well as strong partnerships to make deliberate, decisive and actionable plans that will sustain and improve a community’s quality of life – an emerging influential economic driver. The mission of Economic Development and Planning in Tioga County, New York, is to do just that. The office was created by county legislature in 1993.
Tioga County is often recognized as being the ‘mother county’ since other surrounding counties were formed from its original boundaries. The county was established in 1791 and has its county seat in the Town of Owego (population 20,000).
Major highways offer access to the county including Interstate 86 (Southern Tier Expressway) and New York State Routes 38 and 96. The county is well served by Norfolk Southern and Canadian Pacific Railways.
“Tioga County is uniquely positioned to allow the best service for businesses and industries,” says LeeAnn Tinney, the director of Tioga County’s economic development and planning office. “One might view our lack of airport as a negative. However, we do not see it that way. There are regional airports located within a half hour to our west and east and international airports located within an hour to our north and south.”
As a largely rural region, Tioga County relies heavily on its diverse agricultural sector, which makes up more than one-third of the county. In fact, New York State itself is a leading agricultural state with at least one-quarter of its land area utilized for farmland which generates billions of dollars in revenue and employs thousands.
“Tioga County boasts many agricultural land-based opportunities,” says LeeAnn. “Many of these opportunities are located here because this is where the supply is.”
The Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), based in Owego, is a vital outreach program of Cornell University. The university is a world-class leader in agricultural studies and research and provides links to research and a knowledge base that strengthens the state of New York’s agricultural industry.
Andrew Fagan is executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension for Chemung and Tioga Counties. “According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, sales of [agricultural] products from the farm gate totaled more than thirty-six million dollars for more than 500 full and part-time farms.” He also notes that dairy farming remains a prominent sector accounting for more than $20 million of total sales. “Even within dairy, we see more farms turning to organic practices and/or value-added processing in order to increase profits due to the highly fluctuating fluid milk price.”
There are a growing number of farms that are selling products and produce through direct marketing and other various avenues. “Large enterprises are also finding their way into regional markets and to New York City. With the trend in buying local, we expect this trend to continue and grow.”
The securing of strong, vision-sharing economic development partnerships, both within and outside the county, is a vital component of Tioga County’s economic development and planning office. “Because we recognize the planning process is the most crucial initial function of any project, we have combined it with our economic development operations,” says LeeAnn. This approach offers, “a truly seamless approach for any developer, new or already established in the area.”
Communication with partners such as the county’s chamber of commerce, local development corporation, industrial development agency and employment center, creates a collaborative framework for economic development in the county. “We put great effort into maintaining and strengthening our relationships with our state and federal officials as well as area colleges and universities.”
Andrew says that recently the county adopted its Agricultural and Farmland Protection Plan Update, which outlines a vision for the agricultural sector. The plan which is, “designed with farmer and community input to support and grow Tioga agriculture and to better utilize our land resources.” Key agencies have come together to form an agricultural resource group dedicated to the implementation of this plan.
Tioga County has several incentives to encourage business interests and investment. “One of our greatest tools is the ability to offer incentives at the local level,” says LeeAnn.
Some of these incentives include payment in lieu of tax program through the county’s industrial development agency. This program allows for, “sales tax and mortgage recording tax exemptions along with real property tax abatements,” says LeeAnn. “These are incentives that are controlled at the local level by those who have the greatest understanding for the needs of the community.”
Additionally, state funds offered by the Consolidated Funding Application (CFA) and the Upstate Revitalization Initiative (URI), “have proven to be a major catalyst for business development.”
Andrew says that both the state and federal governments offer loans and grants to assist farmers. The county was awarded a $500 million URI grant from the state of which $100 million will be used for Tioga County’s agriculture and food systems projects. An agriculture development specialist with CCE will assist farmers with finding the funding, technical resources and information necessary to develop their projects.
Another funding opportunity is the agriculture enhancement grants administered by the Tioga County’s Soil and Water Conservation District. The grants help farms in implementing environmental projects expanding their businesses.
Tioga County has one industrial park and one office park with water, sewer and natural gas services. There are also plans to extend fiber optics service, which will well serve the County’s strong technology sector.
Lee Ann explains that although Tioga County’s Lounsberry region, “is not specifically designated an industrial park, most of our recent growth is occurring in this location.” Lounsberry is quite close to the I86 highway interchange.
Being part of the Southern Tier of New York State has its advantages. Although Tioga County doesn’t have institutions of higher learning, the county, “is the apex of educational opportunities in the Southern Tier,” says LeeAnn. A number of universities and colleges are close to the county and include Binghamton University and SUNY Broome Community College and Binghamton to the east; Elmira and Corning College to the west; Ithaca’s Cornell and Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) to the north.
“As a result of our relationship with SUNY Broome, we are able to offer both credit and non-credit classes in Tioga County,” adds LeeAnn. “We work closely with SUNY Broome and workforce development. We have recently participated with TC3 to complete a survey of employer needs in the area. We have partnerships with Binghamton and Cornell Universities to support the Start-Up New York program.” This program assists qualified businesses in start-up, expansion and relocation to the state’s tax-free zones.
“TC3 has a growing number of ag and food system programs and we are working with them to identify internship opportunities in Tioga County on farms and within the food industry,” says Andrew. He says that CCE is, “hosting an ongoing homesteading series to help people learn how to start farming.” The goal of the CCE is to, “continue to expand opportunities for people – young and old – to learn about opportunities in ag and food systems.”
There has been additional business interest in the county from other sectors that represented over $318 million in new business in 2015, creating 813 permanent jobs and over 1300 construction jobs. This growth led to a 5.3 percent unemployment rate – the lowest in eight years.
Some of this growth can be attributed to, “the emergence of an interesting sector,” says LeeAnn. “We are experiencing dramatic growth in industries that involve forms of recycling. Upstate Shredding LLC is not only the Northeast’s single largest metal recycling facility, but this operation is now expanding to include media recycling and has long term plans of constructing a steel mill – the ultimate process in steel recycling.”
Other recent investments include the $12.2 million Owego Garden project, a sixty-two-unit mixed-income senior rental community; Tioga Downs, a $135 million racing and Vegas-style casino project; and Nichols Cross Dock, an almost $13 million new trucking terminal project for Fed Ex.
Tourism is another sector experiencing growth in Tioga County. This land of lakes, festivals, natural beauty and a rich cultural heritage, offers numerous amenities with major attractions a short drive away.
“Tioga County is unique in our shopping assets for locals and visitors, with small, historic, walkable downtowns instead of strip malls and plazas,” says Rebecca Maffei, Tioga’s tourism director. “There is a burgeoning arts community with its center in the Village of Owego, where galleries showcase local artists, and residencies are offered for a variety of mediums … Communities throughout the county have tight-knit community organizations who work to beautify their municipalities and put on festivals in every season.”
In summing up this place she calls home, LeeAnn says that the quality of life in Tioga County is most likely the most significant attribute. “This is a great place to live and raise a family.”