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Image: newyorkstatesearch.com

North Country population shifts dramatically

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Late last week the US Census released new population numbers and the data for the North Country caught the eye of Brian Mann, our Adirondack bureau chief.

He's been blogging about the fact that a number of counties here in the region continue to lose population at a troubling rate.

And then there's Jefferson County, around Fort Drum, which is one of the fastest growing parts of New York state. Brian spoke with Martha Foley about the shift.

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MF: Brian, these figures show the latest trends, from 2010 through 2012. What are the big takeaways?

BPM: The attention grabber here is that a number of counties in the region continue to see a really significant erosion in the number of year-round residents. Clinton and Essex counties lost between 500 and 600 people each in just that 24 month period. That may not sound like a huge exodus, but that means one average-sized family moving away each and every week for two years – that’s a painful drain for parts of New York that are already sparsely settled.

MF: We also saw a small population loss in Warren County, but the numbers are especially stark for Hamilton County, not the most populous county to start with. There the population has dropped below 4,800 people – that’s in the entire county. And the data shows that one out of four of those residents is over the age of 65.

BPM: Right, and that’s tough. I think a lot of people are starting to look at Hamilton County as sort of a special case, an extremely rural, extremely remote part of the Adirondack Park that is now at serious risk of dropping below the population threshold where they can sustain core services – things like grocery stores and public schools, services for seniors who live there, and volunteer fire departments. I spoke yesterday about these numbers with Bill Farber. He’s chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors. Here’s what he said:

“The communities are really losing population, we’re bleeding particularly younger people. We see the impact on the school population, so the county board is gravely concerned about it, and frankly we’re concerned about how we turn the trend around. That’s not to say that we don’t think that some of the things we’ve been able to do with broadband and things won’t make a difference, but we’re concerned with whether we can make a difference quickly enough to turn this around so that the schools survive.”

MF: So Bill Farber is really talking about survival there. I mean, many of those schools are also the major employers, so if they go, it’s another big hit. How big a factor is the Adirondack Park in this trend?

That’s the question that gets everyone shouting at each other. Some people, like Bill Farber, do think environmental regulation and big land purchases have been a factor, driving away employers and industries and hurt population growth. But a lot of other people, including Peter Bauer with an environmental group called Protect the Adirondacks, think the population here is actually a lot more stable than in other parts of the rural US:

“You have to look at what’s happening in the Adirondacks against national trends, the depopulation of rural America. Really in the last 100 years it’s been stunning, this massive movement of tens of millions of people to where we now have a population that’s over 80 percent in the suburbs and the cities.”

And many North Country counties are fairly stable population-wise, compared with rural areas in western New York or in other states that are seeing their populations really implode.  

MF: Okay let’s pivot now to talk about a county that’s experiencing a very different fate. Jefferson County actually saw dramatic growth over this two-year period. The area around Watertown and Fort Drum is one of the fastest-growing parts of New York state. That’s maybe not a big surprise.

BPM: That’s right. Over the 24 months that the Census measured here, Jefferson County gained almost as many people as live in all of Hamilton County – with roughly 4,000 people moving in. This is all about Fort Drum. This week, the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization released a study showing that the big Army base produces roughly $1.4 billion dollars in economic activity in Jefferson County (PDF). So it’s not just the 20,000 soldiers. It’s their families, the kids they’re putting in schools, the shopping they do, the new teachers that need to be hired, construction of new housing, all of that being taken together.

MF: And all of that being driven by one engine. One thing that’s interesting here is that you do have these sort of “hotspots” where the population appears to be growing – Saratoga County also gained more than 2,000 people. But then their neighbors aren’t faring as well.

BPM: There’s a lot of work done in the North Country to shape the region into an actual region, with transportation corridors, workers moving between towns, shared services, and so on. We’re even consolidated now into one big Congressional district.

But the truth is that we appear to still be a lot of micro-climates economically, driven by very different geographies and economic realities. Jefferson County is next door to Hamilton County which is next door to Saratoga County, but in some ways they’re each in their own worlds.

MF: Bill Farber spoke earlier about solutions to the loss of population, to the aging trend. Are there any signs that things like broadband or biomass energy or wind development might spark a revival?

BPM: I think people are scrambling to find answers. Another obvious solution is finding ways to translate the North Country’s beauty into a more lucrative tourism industry. And there are efforts to create a larger population of telecommuters, who spend big chunks of the year in places like Indian Lake or Westport but earn their paychecks from companies outside the region.

The problem is that any progress that’s being made there is – for now at least – being offset by deep cuts in government spending. Small towns across the North Country are laying off school teachers and highway workers. They’re talking about consolidations and mergers and that will likely mean more jobs lost. Here’s state Senator Betty Little speaking earlier this week.

“Politically it becomes challenging to convince some to believe that consolidation or sharing services is the best option. I think part of the problem is when you lose a job, or when you cut jobs, these people don’t have other jobs to go to.”

 

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