By Jann Wiswall
Many people in the area may have noticed references to Southern Tier West (STW) in conversations and newspaper articles, but few seem to know what the organization actually does. In fact, you may have benefited from some of its programs but didn’t know STW was involved.
Southern Tier West is a quasi-governmental organization that is part of the federal-state partnership known as the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). ARC is an independent federal agency that “works for sustainable community and economic development in Appalachia.”
Thirteen states have counties that are part of Appalachia as defined by the commission. In New York, those counties are divided into three local development districts, or regional planning and development boards, known as Southern Tier West, Southern Tier Central and Southern Tier East.
These regional planning and development boards work in various ways to support economic, social and community development programs that enhance the counties they serve. STW serves Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.
STW receives most of its nearly $1 million in funding from ARC and New York State. Additional revenues come from membership fees from local municipalities, matching funds and in-kind contributions. Those funds are used to support STW’s programs, services and grant assistance.
According to Executive Director Richard Zink, the primary focus of STW is to help local governments work better. Sixty percent of the staff’s time goes into training municipal staffs, providing technical assistance, holding conferences and workshops, and hosting local government websites. The organization also focuses on training highway supervisors and providing them with GIS-based data to help them track and monitor repair and maintenance activity over time.
The balance of staff time is dedicated to running a number of other programs designed to improve the economies in the tri-county region. These include supporting workforce development programs, conducting research, improving healthcare provider quality, developing a regional watershed planning and storm water management collaborative, helping communities develop comprehensive economic development strategies and building a “regional food economy.”
In 2013, STW worked with stakeholders to secure $623,000 in state funding for a major broadband project that will provide WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) service, improve Internet availability and open cable competition throughout the region. The first phase of this project will be completed in summer 2014.
STW also has worked with local leaders to obtain grants to support nursing programs at Jamestown Community College, workforce development programs at Alfred State University, water infrastructure improvement programs for numerous towns and villages, farm-to-school food service programs, regional food producer and consumer studies, and many other programs that touch residents of the tri-county area every day.
In addition to seeking grants, STW’s Development Foundation awards grants each year to small businesses, municipalities and non-profit organizations to support efforts to build stronger, more vital communities.
“Our strength lies in our ability to bring people together and get things done,” Zink said. “Because we are non-political, we are able to look at the priorities of the region and understand them from all perspectives. We take what we learn, identify project champions, help them get buy-in from other stakeholders and support them throughout the process.”
For 2014, STW will focus on strengthening training for municipalities and shoring up highway superintendent trainings. Efforts to build a regional food economy using the brand “From the Ground Up” will continue, as will the many other ongoing program areas of the organization.
Zink and the STW board also plan to tackle the challenge of understanding why some projects haven’t been funded.
“Western New York in general has been getting more state support than in the past, but most of that is going to the Buffalo/Niagara region,” said Zink.
The board is chaired by Robert Keis, supervisor of the Town of Mansfield in Cattaraugus County, and includes five representatives from each county and a representative of the Seneca Nation, and expects to work toward making sure STW is relevant in the eyes of funding organizations and governments.
“We’re known in our three counties, but not necessarily in Albany,” Zink said. “We’ll be taking a more proactive approach to making sure they understand what we’ve done, what we can do and why we’re worth the investment.”
For more information about Southern Tier West Regional Planning and Development Board, visit www.southerntierwest.org.