By Jamie Swinnerton
Heather McDaniel is a California girl who loves the outdoors, coffee, roller coasters, her two daughters, sunshine, and helping local businesses grow and find stability in the area. Now, she’s the new President of Tompkins County Area Development (TCAD), a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization founded in 1964 that acts as Tompkins County’s economic development organization. Before taking the role of President McDaniel served as the Vice President and Director of Economic Development Services to outgoing President Michael Stamm.
The story of how McDaniel ended up in Tompkins County will be a familiar one to many residents. Back in 2001, she was ready to head back to California after having completed her Masters in Urban and Regional Planning at New York University, but her partner wanted to come back to Ithaca and get his Masters at Cornell University. The beauty of the area pulled her in.
“I was on my way back to California and he was really smart, he brought me up here in the fall,” McDaniel said. “We did the B&B, we did the leaf peeping and the wineries.”
She was hooked. When her partner was accepted into a Masters program at Cornell he asked her to move to Ithaca and she did. Now she said she has found the best of both worlds in Ithaca: close to major metropolitan areas, beautiful and accessible nature to explore, and a city full of life and culture.
Her undergraduate degree is in sociology from the University of California at Berkley. She studied public administration which she then turned into her urban planning degree, and her initial background is in cooperative affordable housing. When she moved to Ithaca she used this experience to get a job in the county planning department working on affordable housing and some environmental work.
“They handed me some old economic development loan projects and I started working with businesses as a small part of what I was doing in the planning department and I found that I really enjoyed it,” she said.
Eleven years ago she started her work at TCAD as the Empire Zone Coordinator, making the jump full-time to economic development from planning. She put a lot of time and energy into her own professional development in this area due in large part, she said, to the encouragement from her predecessor. Eventually, she started managing the TCAD loan program, growing it by about 75 percent in about five years, targeting small and early-stage companies. After that she worked on managing the business retention and expansion program, meeting with local businesses to figure out what they need to grow and stay local.
“I really love that I feel like I’m making a big difference in our community,” she said. “I think that jobs really are the backbone of the community. If people can’t find quality, long-term employment opportunities, they’re forced to look elsewhere and that’s not good for Tompkins County and the surrounding community.”
Great jobs, she said, gives people the ability to start or support their families, buy homes, and drive the need for the quality of life aspects that make a community vibrant and interesting. She used to think that housing was the key to a strong, flourishing local economy. But after living in around 15 different places before ending up in Tompkins County she realized there was more to the puzzle.
“I always thought that the housing, if you had housing you could have community, and I lived in housing cooperatives and just thought that was the be-all and end-all, but at some point, I realized the jobs piece is so important,” she said.
One of the biggest misconceptions about her job, and TCAD in general, McDaniel said, was the idea that economic development is the same as corporate welfare. She said she looks at a business the same way she looks at a family trying to manage income and their expenses. She works with companies trying to do great things within an expensive state.
“New York State has a very high cost of doing business,” she said. “There’s lots of taxes. Property taxes are high, business taxes are high. It’s hard to run a business in this state and that’s something that I think is really important, that needs to be part of the discussion.”
One of the misconceptions about economic development in general, McDaniel said, is the tax abatement process that the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (TCIDA), a public authority managed by TCAD, oversees. It’s state regulations that the IDA must adhere to when granting tax abatements, and McDaniel said the Tompkins County IDA has actually been rather conservative in the abatements it has given out, when it comes to the terms and the amounts of the abatements, as well as the kinds of projects the incentives can be given to. McDaniel said it would be more accurate to describe the abatements as a phasing in of new taxes for a business that expands, which alleviates some of the financial burdens an expanding company faces as it grows.
Looking to the future, McDaniel wants to build on the work that TCAD already does but would like to see more growth in the development of workforce housing and the workforce in general. Next year the organization is hoping to hire another staff member focused specifically on workforce development in the area, finding out where the disconnect is between what employers are looking for and the skills that locals looking for jobs have and bridging the gap. She wants this process to be transparent and public but she’s not sure yet what that could look like. As for the housing aspect, details around what TCAD could do there are also unclear at the moment. But, in all fairness, she hasn’t even fully moved into her new office. Creating a workforce housing project or initiative is going to take longer than the two weeks she’s been President.
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