Progress is difficult when pessimists are loud

“We need elected officials to champion solutions. They may not always be popular, but if they’re necessary for the county’s long-term stability, it’s vital that they be addressed.”

I wrote those words in March following Hillside’s announcement that it would be shutting down its Romulus operation and taking 235 jobs along with it.

There’s no doubting the importance of a “Hillside” or 235 jobs in a community like Seneca County. Perhaps unsurprisingly, readers had a lot to say about that column. Some posed questions, others suggested that I was capitalizing on the sad news that Hillside was ceasing operations, and there were a few kudos.

Click here to visit the Finger Lakes Times website.

The questions were most intriguing. Here’s a quick sampling:

What can anyone do about an economic situation that’s been created mostly by Albany? How realistic is it to expect a major employer — one who carries dozens, much less hundreds of jobs — to come to Seneca County or the Finger Lakes?

The answer lies in fragments of conversations I’ve had over the last several weeks with stakeholders and organizers who play a role in this whole “economic development” effort.

“I’ve reminded people every day for as long as I’ve been here that we need to scream louder than the pessimists.”

Those are the words of Steve Griffin. He leads the Finger Lakes Economic Development Center in Yates County. Fresh off Penn Yan’s $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative win and recent submission of the final DRI projects for state consideration, he talked about the years of work that went into the victory.

It doesn’t just happen overnight. It takes work. It takes a community coming together for a common goal. And I don’t mean that in a philosophical, sentimental way. Actually, quite the opposite. It means that if you don’t have the support of your community, or the right stakeholders, you have to do the legwork yourself and make sure that your community has a seat at the table and is represented the right way.

Then came a conversation with Richard Mayfield. He oversees rural development initiatives within the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New York. His, and the USDA’s, biggest collective challenge? Getting word out about the opportunities that exist to those who can act on them.

Good news breeds opportunities and awareness. If elected officials aren’t going to be the champions of their communities, screaming louder than the pessimists, as Griffin has done for more than a decade, then it’s up to others to do it.

It’s up to someone to fill the back pages, and Google Search Results with news and information that makes site selectors and interested parties choose these rural communities. It’s not up to your local newspaper, radio, or TV station to be your press machine. It’s up to the community to be its own public relations machine.

News organizations are meant to be the watchdogs of the community, not the loudspeaker of the community — echoing out a favorable message, just for the sake of filling their own editions. And worse yet, the unending expectation that someone else will do it is exactly what created the vacuum we see in the Finger Lakes now.

There are pockets of success, but large, rural swaths of the region are left untouched and hurting for some kind of success. They are begging for something to feel good about and for the community to rally around.

Change takes time and effort. More importantly, though, it takes repetition. Lots of it.

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