The last couple of years, a furious debate has raged in the Adirondacks over what sounds like the wonkiest, nit-pickiest thing in the world: demographics.
Is the Park’s population growing or declining? Is the community aging its way into a Japan-style senescence, where nursing homes will replace public schools?
Or are we a hip, lifestyle-driven region, where a lot of active baby boomers are choosing to retire, investing their dollars, their creativity and their leisure time in our mountain towns?
The reason that this debate takes on such intensity is that population trends are seen as a shorthand for the state of the Park itself.
If communities are thriving, or even doing sort of okay, then maybe the regulatory scheme, environmental controls, and state land ownership that define the Adirondacks aren’t so bad after all?
This is the position generally taken by prominent blogger John Warren (who curates Adirondack Almanack) and conservationist Brian Houseal (head of the Adirondack Council).
“It shows that environmental protection doesn’t drive away residents,” Houseal said, in a press release, following release of US Census numbers earlier this month.
“It reinforces out believe that the Adirondack Park is a special and desirable place to live, not in spite of special land use rules, but because of them.”
On the other hand, if our small towns are tipping off the edge of a demographic cliff, then surely that’s an indictment of job-killing over-regulation, and expansion of the forest preserve that’s squeezing out private sector development.
This is the position adopted broadly by Fred Monroe, head of the Adirondack Local Government Review Board.
“The Council is wrong,” Monroe told the Glens Falls Post-Star. “They’re trying to say everything is just rosy. They’re just trying to discount the APRAP.”
He’s referring to a study conducted by the Adirondack Association of Towns and Villages which first raised alarms about demographic trends in the Park and our aging population.
NCPR will be looking at these questions in more detail in the weeks ahead, but in the meantime here are a couple of observations:
First, it’s obviously good news that the population inside the Park overall is fairly stable, especially when compared with other parts of upstate New York.
Over the last half-century, Buffalo has lost more than half of its population, while Rochester and Syracuse have lost about a third of their people.
By contrast, the Post Star’s analysis found that towns located entirely inside the Park lost about 1,800 people over the last decade, roughly a 1-2% decline.
What’s more, a big share of the slippage inside the blue line occurred in one place: Hamilton County.
I make this point because I think Hamilton County is a unique situation and warrants special attention. New York’s most rural, remote county is clearly teetering and it’s unclear why.
Maybe it’s entirely because of the Park and its rules, but if that’s true then why is Essex County — also located entirely inside the Park — growing modestly?
(I suspect that Hamilton’s woes have more to do with extreme isolation, distance from interstates and even modest urban centers, than with the Park and its regulations, but this is a question that deserves a lot more scrutiny.)
It’s also pretty clear that population is trending toward the fringe of the Park, with most of the growth concentrated in communities that straddle the blue line. Indeed, growth in those areas actually outstripped most of New York state.
I think it’s also fair to say that our current stability is a fragile thing, which is why it’s good that we’re having this conversation.
While some Park communities (Saranac Lake, for example) are doing very well by rural American standards, others (Indian Lake, Willsboro) are on downward trajectories, losing grocery stores, schools, churches and (most importantly) young people.
What’s more, as local and state governments move aggressively to cut jobs, the economy of many Adirondack towns faces an existential crisis.
So long as communities like Moriah and Tupper Lake rely on Albany for their prosperity — such as it is — they will be communities on risky life support. That’s hardly a success story.
The bottom line is that the latest Census numbers paint a fairly nuanced, complicated portrait of the Park’s population. Neither side in the debate can say flat-out that their point of view is vindicated.
Which means we need to keep poking hard at these questions:
In what ways is the Park boosting our communities as desirable, attractive destinations, for visitors, but also for families and businesses? What advantages does it give us over other rural regions? How can we enhance this?
In what ways is the Park choking our communities with over-regulation? Are we discouraging even those kinds of development and growth that don’t significantly harm the beauty and wildness of the place? If so, how can we eliminate some of these hurdles?
As always, your thoughts welcome.