Locate Finger Lakes Business Journal

Bringing an entire state of experience to Schuyler

judy-mckinney-cherryA dynamic and energetic leader with an uncommon array of unique experiences makes Judy McKinney-Cherry a significant force in the economic development scene of Schuyler County, the Southern Tier, the Finger Lakes and across New York State.

Taking on the role of Executive Director of the Schuyler County Industrial Development Agency in May 2014, her leadership skills and knowledge of economic development have been widely recognized throughout New York State. Some examples: Judy was chosen to serve by Governor Cuomo as Co-Chair of the Regional Economic Development Council for the Southern Tier, and recruited to serve as a member of the LOCATE Finger Lakes Board of Directors.

It was a long road that led McKinney-Cherry to Schuyler County. It began in 1985 when she went to work for the state of Delaware’s Economic Development Office. Seventeen years later she was asked to lead it as part of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner’s cabinet. “I left office when the Governor was term-limited and began working with non-profits in the arts, human services, and education fields,” she recalled. Then in 2013 when her husband retired — the two considered a move — and unironically chose Schuyler for the same reasons many others do each day. “My husband said upon his retirement we should move to a location where he could realize his dream to own a sailboat. It was time for us to spend our later years sailing, so in 2014 I started looking for employment opportunities that were driveable to Delaware.”

McKinney-Cherry says she was immediately intrigued by the Schuyler County position. “I was — and continue to be — really excited to be working in New York State because of its diverse economy, incredible natural resources, educational assets, and project funding opportunities. I

wasn’t aware of Schuyler County or the Southern Tier per se. I had heard of Watkins Glen

International because I was raised in the shadow of Dover Downs International Speedway.” She was also familiar with the area generally since her daughter spent five years at Ithaca College, and then pursued her master’s degree at Cornell. “We had visited the area several times. We also vacationed on Owasco Lake staying at a friend’s home — toying with the idea of buying a house on Owasco Lake at the time.”

Like other innovators-turned-leaders in the Finger Lakes, though, McKinney-Cherry was intrigued by a couple datapoints, which she uncovered ahead of her interview with Schuyler County. “I was researching the entrepreneurial databases and found that it was made up of 99% very small businesses. I was also delighted that according to the US Patent & Trade Office, there was evidence that individuals living in Schuyler were being granted patents so I knew there was potential for interesting start-ups,” she continued. Perhaps it was all fitting since Schuyler County is one of the smallest in New York.

It begs the question, though: What was the transition like moving from state government in Delaware to local government in rural New York? “Exceptionally different, and also deeply rewarding,” McKinney-Cherry continued. “In State government, most department heads are in a pressure-cooker, always under scrutiny by political forces and the press. We were trying to meet the needs of the people, and this means all constituents and implementing gubernatorial goals while following legal, social and economic requirements. Working in a local community and in the second smallest county in New York State allows me to help businesses directly, develop and recommend solutions for the communities that will have greater permanency and impact for our current and future residents.”

“From a business perspective, I know what it’s like to operate a profitable business, to have to make a payroll, ensure clients are satisfied, and chart a path for company success; so I feel I am a solid resource for my community. My background as an entrepreneur fresh out of college as well as my experience in a rapidly growing company allows me to connect with very small businesses as well as multinational firms,” she continued. “In Schuyler County, I have an abundance of entrepreneurs, rich land resources, a strong agriculture sector, food manufacturing and a strong tourism economy. Having Cornell University, Elmira College, Ithaca College, TC3 and Corning Community College right next door is a fabulous asset, as is, having the global headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, Corning Inc., just 25 minutes away.”

That diversity is precisely what positions Schuyler County, the Finger Lakes region, and Southern Tier in such a positive way.

One of the most-interesting opportunities to have come along under her tenure is the Project Seneca Initiative. That set out to redevelop the waterfront and canal between Watkins Glen and Montour Falls. It sounds simple enough, but an undertaking like this is something that’s crucial for a community like Schuyler County to get right. “Redeveloping waterfront property has a generational impact,” she said. “I knew that this could be a deeply satisfying project that would have an impact for generations to come.” McKinney-Cherry said at the same time the goal of county-level officials was to bring an employer to the business park. “The data clearly demonstrated a need to restore year-round, living wage employment that was the base of the economy until the 1980s,” she recalled. “It comes down to not accepting the ‘way we always do it’, mentality and striking out on a new trajectory.”

Despite having a smaller population than most counties, Schuyler County offers a range of benefits for people and businesses. It’s within good proximity to multiple employment centers, enjoys lower real estate costs, and offers natural beauty, along with rural character. “The new residents of Schuyler come for the natural beauty, rural character and the authenticity that the villages provide. We have a significant number of telecommuters and the expanded access to broadband has created greater opportunity to attract new professionals who can work anywhere,” she explained. “Many of the Schuyler businesses had their best year in history due to New Yorkers staying in-state. I believe, post-COVID, Schuyler will continue to see new residents moving to the area and new businesses establishing roots.”

Looking at the progress made McKinney-Cherry can’t help but be really proud of the changes that have come in recent years. “Having been on a workforce development board since 1998 at a State level and now on a local level, our ability to improve the labor participation rate and create a predictable flow of renewable workforce skills for our businesses is paramount to our economic resiliency,” she added. That’s what Schuyler and the Southern Tier has done through encouraging out-of-the-box workforce training projects. “Additionally, New York State’s focus on and commitment of financial resources for upstate New York for community redevelopment such as the Downtown Revitalization Initiative (DRI), entrepreneurialism, infrastructure, advanced manufacturing, encouraging higher education spin-outs, clean energy, strong incubators, as well as, 76 West, Grow New York business competitions, combined with local enthusiasm and dedication, gives me confidence that our region will thrive,” McKinney-Cherry continued. “These combined with the private venture and angel funding assets such as Launch New York, create an unstoppable combination for transformational economic development. The economic development connection to higher education with its research and our ability to link businesses to that developing research is critical for our future. We have the assets and the raw material – we need to ensure there remains a sense of urgency, focus on implantation with all eyes focused on the goal ahead; instead of worrying that the community next door is going to out-compete you for a project, or worse yet, ‘rob’ your community of your employers or unique assets.”

It’s that focus on community, cohesion, and energy that drives McKinney-Cherry forward.

“Our communities have unique assets, unique histories, and great opportunities; we just need to assemble the assets, leverage the history, and have the courage to create a new path by rising above the comfort of ‘doing economic development the insular way we always have’,” McKinney-Cherry concluded. Doing things different is important — and a different, candid style of leadership is exactly what this Delawarean brought to Schuyler County.


LOCATE Finger Lakes is proud to have Judy McKinney-Cherry as a member of its Board of Directors. As the article indicates, she is by every measure a great contributor to our region. We would like to share with you a tremendous video Judy developed to tell about the economic development assets of Schuyler County. Michael F. Nozzolio, Chairman

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