Judith Seil’s job description is simple in its complexity.
“I try to take alphabet soup and make it understandable to the business community,” she says.
Seil, 49, is director of Monroe County’s Department of Planning and Development. She manages a staff of 26 in a department of three components: economic development, planning and community development. She oversees a departmental budget of $2.7 million.
As director, she also serves as executive director of the County of Monroe Industrial Development Agency.
“She’s just a wonderful person,” says Anne McKenna, director of development and community relations for non-profit health agency East House Corp. and Seil’s best friend. “She’s always been, in our groups of friends, the leader. She’s a natural leader. She’s always the tiniest person in the room and yet she’s probably the strongest.”
A resident of Brighton, Seil was hired by Monroe County in 1991 as an economic development specialist. She was named economic development manager in 2004 when Maggie Brooks took office as county executive, and was named acting director when Terrence Slaybaugh left in 2006 for a job in the private sector.
Seil was appointed full-time director in January. She has, however, been the backbone of the county’s economic development operations for years, colleagues say.
“I’ve been there a long time,” Seil says, downplaying her expertise. “I know a lot of people. I know who I can call to get answers very quickly. I’ve had great leaders. Maggie’s been great to work with. She gets economic development.”
A native of Massena in northern New York, Seil joined the county after working in the banking industry for 10 years, first on the retail side at Central Trust Co. and then in commercial lending at KeyCorp and Marine Midland Bank.
“Every day is different,” she says of her county responsibilities. “Every business is different. Every project you work on is different. Every day you start out thinking about what you’re going to get done, and then different things come through the door or on the phone and in e-mail.”
Seil empathizes with the business community.
“People talk about our programs being corporate welfare, but I think it’s just so difficult to own a business,” she says. “For anybody that does it, I give them a ton of credit.
“They have to worry every day about keeping their doors open, taking care of the employees, keeping up with technology, being competitive in the marketplace. The programs we offer assist them to get to the next level.”
COMIDA incentive plans include property tax abatements for companies that expand and add jobs, and sales tax breaks on the purchase of equipment and materials.
“It’s tough to do business in New York,” Seil said. “You wouldn’t need incentives if the playing field were level in New York State. We wouldn’t need IDAs and we wouldn’t need any of these incentives if the tax situation were the same as it is in other states.
“But I do think the work force is what keeps people here. Maggie always says, and I agree with her, the glass is half-full. When we visit businesses and she asks what keeps you here, it’s the work force, it’s the community
itself, the school districts and the great place to raise kids.”
Start in banking
Seil came to Rochester from Massena to attend Nazareth College of Rochester. After graduating, she was hired by Central Trust, whose president was Carlos Carballada, now economic development commissioner for the city of Rochester.
“When I started in banking in 1981, it was probably the worst time to even start,” Seil says. “The recession was on. The prime rate was 20.5 percent-it’s 5.5 percent now.”
Two years later, she married and moved to Syracuse, taking a job in consumer lending at KeyBank. A year later, she and her husband, Joseph, moved back to Rochester.
“We missed Rochester,” she said. “We like Rochester. To the people that have all the negative things to say about it, I think it’s a great place to live. Coming from Massena, N.Y., which is so rural, coming down here was the big city to me.”
Seil transferred within KeyBank to Rochester and moved into commercial lending.
“That’s kind of the background into economic development,” she said. “I think you have to have a strong understanding of business, and that’s what I had when I entered
Two years later, she took a job in commercial lending at Marine Midland.
In 1989, she interviewed with Monroe County for the job of economic development specialist but did not get it. Two years later, weeks before the birth of her second child, the county called to see if she was still interested in a job.
“I said, ‘I’m nine months pregnant; I don’t know how interested you are in me,'” she recalls. “They said come on in for an interview anyway. So I went in, and while I was on maternity leave I got the job.”
Seil started work for the county in October 1991.
“I learned all the programs,” she says. “It’s so confusing when you go out with our brochure and you’re talking about all these different programs. It’s important to make it understandable for people who are trying to grow their business, invest capital, invest in people, and try to keep it simple.”
She was promoted to a senior economic development position in 2000, then to manager in 2004 when Brooks took office.
“She gives government a very good name,” said Theresa Mazzullo, CEO of venture capital firm Excell Partners Inc. and COMIDA chairwoman.
Mazzullo leaned heavily on Seil after joining COMIDA as its chairwoman in 2005.
“If I call her for any information or question, she is so quick to get right back to me with a comprehensive answer,” Mazzullo says. “When I came on board, she was willing to share her knowledge base with me, and be patient to help me come up to speed on the products, abatements and tax incentives we offer. She never seems exasperated or impatient.”
Even with her administrative duties, Seil continues to call on county businesses to discuss economic development initiatives.
“When I became the director, I didn’t want to lose sight of rolling up your sleeves and meeting with companies,” she says. “If we’re going to be assisting a company, I need to know who the owner is, know who the president is, and be involved in it, even though I have a dedicated staff that works for me. I want them to feel comfortable being able to call me.
“The highest compliment I ever got from the companies we work with was you’re the same as you were when you were an economic development specialist. You know what’s going on with the deal.”
COMIDA has its critics. Seil routinely hears from residents who say COMIDA tax breaks result in higher taxes for the rest of Monroe County, and that many companies receiving those abatements do not meet job creation goals or requirements that local labor be contracted for construction projects.
“Some of the frustrations are that our programs aren’t necessary or we’re just giving things away,” she says. “My answer to that is, companies are investing and creating jobs, and we’re just trying to level the playing field for them.
“Companies that have used our programs will say that without these programs-not in every instance, but in a lot of cases-they wouldn’t have done their expansion here.”
Seil does not take the criticisms of COMIDA personally, she says.
“What makes the world go around is that everybody has different opinions,” she says. “But I feel good at the end of the day about what we do through the IDA, and all our other programs.
“People just focus on the IDA, but we’re a creature of the state. We follow the rules set by the state,” she says. “I feel proud of what we’ve done.”
COMIDA approved 165 projects in 2007, retaining or creating 13,505 jobs. The total investment of private and public funds was nearly $471,000. The approved projects in 2007 marked an increase of 139 percent from 69 projects approved in 2003.
COMIDA approved 115 projects, with a total investment of $188,000, in 2004. It approved 138 projects in 2005, with $515,000 in investments; and approved 132 projects in 2006, with investments of $374,000.
“The last four years have been incredible, with the amount of projects we’ve worked on and the amount of investment that’s been made in the community,” Seil says.
COMIDA has tried to make its information more accessible to public inspection, Seil says.
“The rules have been the same with COMIDA since I started,” she says. “You have to have a 30-day notice for public hearings. You have to publish when your meetings are. And it’s a public meeting. We have public forums.
“But I think now things are more transparent. All our minutes and agenda are on our Web site.”
In terms of COMIDA success stories, Seil says, Rochester Precision Optics LLC is at the top of the list. Owner William Hurley in 2005 was thinking of moving the company to his home state of New Hampshire.
“We met with the gentleman who owned the company in July,” Seil recalls. “By March of the following year (2006) they were in a new building and put an addition on it. That kept 70 jobs here. I see every job as being important to the community. I thought that was a great success.”
Seil declines to talk about projects that have been the most disappointing to her.
“I don’t like to talk about failures,” she says.
The local work force and the quality of life are primary drawing cards for business growth here, Seil says.
“If you’re trying to have somebody come in from outside New York State, the person who makes that decision is usually the CEO,” she says. “They want to come to a community that has a wealth of cultural opportunities, great educational opportunities if they have a family, a manageable commute, affordable housing.
“We have a plethora of water here that is going to become more important as the droughts hit out West. That’s something we’re going to be talking about more and more.”
Seil on most days is out the door by 5 a.m. to work out.
“Keeping your body healthy keeps your mind healthy,” she says. “I’m usually at the gym every morning. I’ve been doing that for 10 or 12 years now. I feel better now than I did in my 20s. It’s never easy to get out of bed and go, but once I get there I feel great the whole day. If I don’t work out, I feel very sluggish.”
McKenna is very familiar with Seil’s regimen.
“That’s where we were opposites when we were roommates,” says McKenna, a friend for 30 years, since they were freshmen at Nazareth. “She was the early riser, and I would always sleep in.”
Seil runs four miles every other day and enjoys playing golf.
“I love to watch my kids play sports,” Seil says. “I’m a huge baseball fan, but I live in a house with three Mets fans and I’m the lone Yankees fan. I take a lot of grief.”
She served as president and commissioner of Brighton Baseball Inc. when her teenage sons, Tim and Andy, were in Little League. She was involved with the Brighton Central School District football booster club until recently and now heads the school’s baseball boosters.
She is treasurer of the Rochester International Film Festival and on the boards of the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Monroe County Sports Development Corp.
“I don’t know how she has time to do everything she does,” McKenna says. “She seems to have more energy than most people.
“Just (last) week, my mother’s in the hospital. When she heard about that, she brought a dinner over that my family enjoyed last (Thursday) night. She’s a friend that goes the extra mile to help people out, to let people know she’s thinking of them.”
Seil inherits her work ethic from her parents, she says, particularly her father, who came to this country from Scotland at 7 years old.
“His mother had died, his father was here,” Seil says. “His mother died just before they were about to get on the boat to come over. He came over and was raised by aunts and his father.”
Her father grew up in the New York City area, Seil says.
“I didn’t know any of this growing up because my father never complained about anything. He learned a trade. He worked in the shipyards during World War II. He worked around asbestos in the shipyards, then became a welder, moved to Upstate New York, married my mother, raised four kids.”
Her father had to drop out of high school in the 10th grade and go to work because his family needed money, Seil says.
“He went from the shipyards and worked as a cook in the state hospital. I joke that my parents met in the state hospital,” she says.
Seil’s mother was a nursing assistant at the state facility, she says. They were married and moved to Massena, where her father got a job as a welder at Alcoa Inc.
“We never had a lot, but you didn’t know the difference,” Seil says. “He was a great influence. You have a job to do. You work hard every day. That’s how you’re judged at the end of the day.”
Seil learned about her father’s personal hardships when the two went to Scotland in 1996.
“It was the most incredible 10 days of my life,” Seil says. “We got to Scotland and drove to where he was born. He remembered the coal fields because his father was a miner. He told me some of this stuff as we were walking around Scotland. I didn’t know the difficulties he had faced as a child.”
Her dad was 70 then. He died a few years later from lung cancer caused by asbestos, Seil says.
Her work-in economic development, in site-plan reviews and brownfields issues within the planning division, and in community development with $2 million in Community Development Block Grants-is a reflection of her father, Seil says.
“I love what I do,” she says. “I have a great boss. I feel good about what I do every day, what we do in the community, what my staff does. The bulk of my time has been devoted to economic development, but our department does a lot of things. They’re kind of under the radar but I’m very proud of what they do too.”
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04/11/08 (C) Rochester Business Journal