What do you get when you mix a horticulturist with an economic developer? The new executive director of the Cornell Agriculture and Food Technology Park Inc.
Steve Isaacs, 48, took over the position in April after serving for a decade as the executive director of the Yates County Industrial Development Agency.
While he has honed his economic development skills, Isaacs equally is versed in plant sciences and Cornell University, where he earned his undergraduate degree. He has worked in both arenas and, in this case, combined the two disciplines.
“I know, it doesn’t make sense,” Isaacs says, with a laugh. “But with my background in both plant science and economic development, along with being a Cornell alum, the transition has been very good, smooth.”
The park, also called the Technology Farm, is a 72-acre site in Geneva that enables collaboration among Cornell University faculty and the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station.
The site is being pegged as a major driving force for economic development in Ontario County and the Rochester/Finger Lakes region, by creating businesses and jobs from commercialized technologies in the areas of agriculture, food and bio-based industries.
Tenants can link research in numerous competencies related to food, agriculture and bio-based sciences. Some 10 companies, from a maker of organically produced fertilizers to a producer of egg-free ice cream bites, have set up shop in the building.
Isaacs is one of two employees that run the park’s operations. The other, Susan Noble, his executive assistant, has been in the position for roughly a year. Both are relatively new, but Isaacs says they are working to move the park forward.
“Together, we’re putting the pieces in place,” he says.
In the Southern Tier
Growing up in a rural area near Elmira, Chemung County, Isaacs always has had an interest in gardening. When the time came to attend college, he searched for one that offered a four-year degree in horticulture or a related field. All roads led him to Cornell in Ithaca.
In 1981, Isaacs received a bachelor of science degree in plant sciences from Cornell’s School of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
He then headed to Florida where his first job was that of a field scout at A. Duda & Sons Inc. in Belle Glade, Palm Beach County, roughly 65 miles from Miami. He served as a member of a research group working with pest management procedures for a 27,000-acre muck operation.
Isaacs then headed to Florida’s southwest coast to Fort Myers where he worked as a store manager for McLaughlin’s Garden City Nurseries Inc.
After returning to New York in the mid-1980s, Isaacs took a job as the agriculture program leader for Cornell Cooperative Extension Center in Orleans County. It was there where he entered the economic development arena, creating curriculum and making presentations related to horticulture and commercial agriculture, tourism and economic development.
When the opportunity came up to serve as executive director of the County of Orleans Industrial Development Agency, Isaacs was up for the challenge, he says. He learned a lot about development on the job.
Saying he needed a break from government-related work, Isaacs left Orleans County and worked as a sales rep for Banfield Baker Corp., which sells fertilizers, soils and mulch in Horseheads, Chemung County.
In 1997, he took the IDA position in Yates County.
His role with the Penn Yan-based organization was to manage the overall supervision, administration and strategic planning for the agency. He also gained property management experience, overseeing an 85,000-square-foot multitenant building in Penn Yan that houses some 18 businesses.
While in Yates County, Isaacs took advantage of the new master’s degree program in management at Keuka College, where he received his advanced degree, a master of science in management, in 2004.
Off the job
In his free time, Isaacs still enjoys gardening. He also likes lake living, reading and is a fan of Syracuse basketball.
He and his companion of 10 years, Donna Hourihan, live in an apartment by Keuka Lake. Isaacs also has a home in Lowman, Chemung County, near where he grew up.
Being some 20 miles away from Geneva-while working in Penn Yan-he says, he watched the Technology Park’s growth with interest.
When the job opening came up, Isaacs sent in his resume.
He did, however, put some thought into leaving his job in Yates County to take his current position.
“From the business side, I said to myself why leave a situation where all systems are in place and the financial situation is stable for one where I would be searching for tenants and the financial future is uncertain, but that was the challenge,” Isaacs said. “I have the experience and am willing to give this a try.”
In his new role, Isaacs is able to confer with Daniel Fessenden, the park’s former executive director. Fessenden resigned as the founding director for a job as executive director for the Fred L. Emerson Foundation Inc., an $80 million family philanthropy based in Auburn, Cayuga County, near his home. Fessenden, however, remains a member of the park’s board.
The quality of the people involved with the venture-such as Fessenden-was a draw for Isaacs. The other board members include Michael Manikowski, executive director of Ontario County’s Office of Economic Development; state Sen. Michael Nozzolio, R-Fayette; and Robert Seam, the park’s board president and a professor of plant pathology at Cornell.
Isaacs’ primary responsibility is bringing the private sector, government and university researchers together to further economic development.
He keeps a cardboard drawing of the park’s master plan nearby at all times, using it as a learning tool for him and reference guide for others.
He has given tours to community groups and potential tenants and attended the International Institute of Food Technologists annual food expo in Chicago this summer.
The idea for such a park began more than a decade ago in the minds of Ontario County developers, officials from the city of Geneva and those at the Experiment Station.
To date, the park has completed a $10 million phase-one development, transforming a former research farm into a university-based research park with commercial infrastructure and a 20,000-square-foot multitenant building.
The park’s dedication was held in November 2005 and the following spring, the first tenants moved in. That building now has an occupancy rate nearing 85 percent, with a mix of companies that include Cornell scientists working on a startup and other entrepreneurs working with Cornell faculty. Roughly 35 people work at the site.
There also are plans from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service to build a 59,000-square-foot national Center for Grape Genetics Research, and a state-run food testing laboratory on-site is another possibility. Isaacs and other park leaders have begun discussion about a second building that would accommodate pilot production services for a few of the firms in the first building, including CherryPharm Inc., which makes an all-natural tart cherry sports drink.
CherryPharm is expanding, thanks largely to a recent $2.3 million investment from the Cayuga Venture Fund.
The second building would accommodate those firms looking to complete small batch runs of their products, as well as provide testing kitchens to try out new recipes.
The farm plans to draw larger companies that would construct stand-alone facilities. Isaacs also is focusing on an effort to market the park internationally to companies looking to enter the North American market. Cornell’s worldwide reputation, coupled with the area’s natural resources, are big selling points, he says.
Ontario County’s Manikowski says roughly 25 people applied for the position to run the Technology Farm and the board narrowed it down to five candidates. Isaacs was the board’s first choice.
Isaacs had qualities the board wanted, including a connection with Cornell and background in economic development, Manikowski says.
“Steve really fit the bill for us,” said Manikowski, who has known Isaacs for some 15 years.
Isaacs’ laid-back style is a plus with the academic community, Manikowski added.
“He is someone who works well with others and has been well-received by the professors at Cornell and the station,” Manikowski said. “He will be able to take us through the long-term planning of the park.”
He also was recommended highly by Keuka College president Joseph Burke.
Isaacs’ leadership skills led Burke to make the recommendation.
Leading Keuka College, Yates County’s largest employer, Burke had the chance to observe Isaacs close-up over the last decade.
“His leadership was superb and he continuously presented us with new and innovative ways to generate additional opportunities for economic, educational and cultural growth across our county,” Burke says. “He had an uncanny ability to bring a widely diverse group of people together to develop common strategies and plans.”
Burke also knew that Isaacs, a Keuka alumnus, was committed to the region.
“We will miss him in Yates County, but I actually think he is well-placed to help us in the long term,” Burke said. “He won’t be far away.”
Jack Kinnicutt, director of Empire State Development Corp.’s Finger Lakes regional office, says he got to know Isaacs while he served as the director of the Rochester-Finger Lakes Regional Development Corp.
“I have always admired his laid-back style and the fact that he’s always knowledgeable about the region,” Kinnicutt says.
Earlier this year, Kinnicutt and other economic development leaders presented Isaacs with a toy farm, complete with animals. A sign on top of the door was created that read “Technology Farm.” Isaacs has the unopened set on a shelf in his office.
Like his colleagues, Kinnicutt also added that Isaacs’ professional background mix makes him an ideal leader for the park, which he believes will play a crucial role in the region’s economic development.
“The key to revitalizing the economy of this region rests in our ability to take innovations and commercialize them,” Kinnicutt says. “The Technology Farm, with its focus on food and bio-based technologies, has the capability of providing a breeding ground for innovation that will lead to growth.”
Isaacs’ goals for the Technology Farm include making it financially solvent. While the bulk of the park’s creation is tied to government grants and other public money, it pays for its operational expenses from lease payments from tenants.
“We really are a startup operation,” Isaacs says. “We have to keep moving forward toward self-sustainability.”
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09/07/07 (C) Rochester Business Journal