At a conference yesterday in Lake Placid, organized by the Adirondack North Country Association, economists tried to give a clearer snapshot of how we're doing and where the region might be going. As Brian Mann reports, the good news is that things aren't a whole lot worse. But researchers worry that continued government layoffs could slow or reverse the North Country's recovery.
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When you talk about the American economy, you’re actually talking about a lot of very different economies – different housing markets, different industries, different regions.
As the country claws its way out of a historic recession, some parts of the US are still stuck in reverse – largely because home prices are still tumbling.
"Most of these metropolitan areas are clustered in what's been called the so-called "sand states." California, Nevada, Arizona — a lot in Florida as well. These are metropolitan areas that really did have a boom and bust cycle to their housing price cycle," said Jaison Abel, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
He says the North Country dodged that bullet, for the most part. We never saw the same magnitude of bubble pricing, except in resort regions of the Adirondacks. As a consequence, this region never fell off a cliff economically during the recession.
"This is what characterizes this Upstate region, ” Abel said. “A much more stable, no boom, no bust type of dynamic. It turns out there's a very important connection between this pattern of house price change and local performance, at least in terms of jobs."
During the recession, Abel says, the North Country saw unemployment rise – but the spike wasn’t anything as dire as those seen in other parts of the US.
Unemployment in our region now runs one to two percent lower than the national average. That’s reflected in the fact that North Country families tend to be far less debt-ridden.
"The level of indebtedness is much, much lower in this part of the country," he said.
So that’s good news – and there are other good bits as well. The North Country’s population is relatively stable.
Also, economists say manufacturing still makes up about 11 percent of the North Country’s jobs base and they don’t think it’s likely to shrink much more.
But there are also some concerns as well. Jen McCormick, a researcher with New York’s Empire State Development Agency, reported that the region is aging faster than the country and New York state.
Also, workers here tend to be less well educated. "Educational attainment in the ANCA region is less than the state as an average and less than the nation as an average," she said.
That matters because, increasingly, the best and highest paid jobs are more highly skilled.
Another big risk going forward is the likelihood of continued layoffs in local and state government – both of which have helped to stabilize the region’s jobs base.
"The impact of what is likely to be continued layoffs over the next fiscal year and what effect it will have, it's a risk," Abel said. "The hope of course is that...private sector gains can offset some of these public sector losses."
Abel says that uncertainty may be dragging down the region’s consumer confidence, which lags behind the rest of the nation.
One other point of conversation at yesterday’s gathering was just how difficult it is to measure and understand the economy in this far-flung rural region.
Kate Fish, head of ANCA, points out that her organization covers a vast fourteen county area.
"The Adirondack Park is a big central piece of this, as is the Tug Hill Plateau. We go from the Canadian border down to the Mohawk Valley. So it poses interesting challenges because of that."
Jan McCormick, with Empire State Development, says it’s often difficult to find the right data for the small but important pockets of economic activity.
"In the Adirondack Park, where do people work, where do they live? The employers outside the APA region, where do their employees come from? Boy, I'd love to know. This kind of empirical information could really drive strategy."
That kind of uncertainty muddles a lot of the discussion of the North Country’s future.
Unfortunately, the new regional economic councils created by Governor Andrew Cuomo seem unlikely to clarify the picture.
The Adirondack Park is divided between three different councils – and ANCA’s fourteen-county area is divided between four councils.
That makes finding good data and developing good planning for the region that much more difficult.