8:57am

Wed July 10, 2013
The Upstate Economy

Is Plattsburgh Montreal's suburb?

Jonathan Slater teaches communications at SUNY Plattsburgh. It’s the end of the work day, and he’s headed out to his car to go home.

But Slater’s commute involves an international border. He lives on the south shore of Montreal, and commutes to Plattsburgh every day.

"Next stop is the border – and that should take no more than a minute or two, and then home to an evening with my daughter," Slater says as he packs the trunk of his car and drives off.  

When you’re in Plattsburgh, you sense that Quebec isn’t too far away. A lot of people like Slater commute back and forth. Street signs are in English and French. Canadian tourists shop at the local mall, and Plattsburgh’s airport is teeming with Canadian travelers.

"We often refer to ourselves as Montreal’s U.S. suburb," explains Susan Matton from the North Country Chamber of Commerce. She says Plattsburgh’s been working hard to attract Canadian businesses.

And it makes sense: New York state is Quebec’s biggest trading partner, at about $6 billion a year.

Stephane Paquin teaches political economics at Quebec’s national school for public administration.

"If you look at Quebec exports for example we export about half our GDP [gross domestic product] and 85 percent of our export goes in the United States, mainly in the border states."

It’s also a strategic foothold for Canadian companies looking to access the U.S. market. Bombardier, Novabus and other Canadian companies all have plants and offices in Plattsburgh.

"This model, introduced by Bombardier, where the engineering jobs are in Montreal because there’s a bastion of population that can meet this challenge and having some manufacturing operations south of the border is a very interesting model," says Andre Boisclair, Quebec's current delegate to New York state. 

Susan Matton from the North Country chamber of commerce, says the region relies heavily on Canadian companies to provide local employment. 

"These companies, like Novabus and Bombardier, hire hundreds of people. So 14 percent, we estimate, of our population here in Clinton County, works for a company that’s owned by a Canadian corporation."

But it’s not just tourism or jobs. Quebec is also a major producer of energy – particularly hydropower. The Champlain Hudson Power Express, a proposed underwater transmission line, could deliver 1,000 megawatts of Quebec-generated power to New York City.

"They are a commodity-driven dollar, so where gas is healthy, when they’re exporting hydro, when they’re exporting oil, their economy grows and prospers," Matten explains. 

But hydropower faces stiff competition from plunging natural gas prices on the open market. And Paquin says that Quebec will have to find a market for all that power.

"And now we’re going to be stuck with a huge surplus of energy in the next few years and that’s creating a huge problem in Quebec because we don’t exactly know where to export that huge amount of energy," he says.

But when Jonathan Slater’s driving home, he’s not thinking about energy or trade.

"I have to remind myself where I am sometimes – it’s an hour drive and I have to remember whether I’m in Canada or in the states. When I’m in Plattsburgh I feel very comfortable and when I’m home I feel very comfortable and the two sort of blend into each other after a work week," said Slater.

And in Plattsburgh, Andre Boisclair notes, people are proud to be near Quebec.

"If I could say that in funny words the people in the North Country in a certain way are part of the greater Montreal region."

Maybe "Montreal’s U.S. suburb" is a good tagline after all.

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