More coffins than cradles?

Kids at Indian Lake School (Photo: Patricia Curry)

This morning as part of our Vanishing Youth series, I interviewed Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey Institute, a rural-policy research group closely tied to the University of New Hampshire.

As Johnson makes clear, the population trends that are reshaping northern New York aren’t unique.  Much of rural America is struggling to retain its younger members, and in many areas the fight has reached a sort of tipping point.

In counties across the Great Plains, researchers have long seen a trend called “natural decrease,” where so many young people have departed (and the remaining family-age folks are having fewer kids) that deaths outnumber births.

Beginning in the 1990s, that same painful phenomenon began to be felt in rural counties in New York.

In 2010 — the latest year that I could find complete statistics — three North Country counties were in negative territory, with Essex, Hamilton and Warren counties seeing more funerals than baby showers.

Other counties in our region are expected to experience this same “downward spiral,” as Jonson describes it, in the decades ahead.

During the 1990s, the “natural decrease” problem was concealed in part by an uptick in immigration to rural areas, but after 2000 Johnson says the number of people choosing to move to small towns dropped by half.

Without babies, and without immigrants, a lot of communities face a bleak future.

This is dreary stuff, but it bears thinking about as we make decisions shaping community life in our region.  As Johnson writes, the trend “has implications that reach far beyond demography to institutions that are the bedrock of communities.”

Schools, volunteer fire departments, churches, basic government services, taxes, medical care — they will all be reshaped.

So are these warnings of things that must be, or merely the predictions of things that might be?  Could some of our small towns spark a youth renaissance, and buck the national trend?

Johnson suggests that some communities in the North Country might have the assets and the opportunities to reverse, or at least mitigate, some of these demographic pressures.

Our region’s natural beauty and our relative proximity to big urban areas (when compared with, say, North Dakota) already offer some foundations that communities are already building on.

Johnson also thinks when the recession finally ends, a lot of retiring baby boomers might look eagerly to regions like our as a comfortable, high-quality and affordable place to retire.

That won’t solve the youth problem, obviously — indeed, it might accelerate the graying of some towns — but it will give some small towns a new influx of vitality.

Johnson argues that real success will require regional efforts by clusters of communities, to build infrastructure, develop marketing, and raise their profile as an attractive place to live.

It’s important to note again that this fight isn’t ours alone.

The entire state of West Virginia is now in “natural decrease” territory, and the state of Maine is also expected to eventually see more deaths than births in most year as that rural state ages.

The question going forward is which communities and regions across small town America will find solutions that offer a sustainable future with more cradles than coffins.

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88 Comments on “More coffins than cradles?”

  1. Walker says:

    “…retiring baby boomers … won’t solve the youth problem, obviously…”

    Well retiring baby boomers who shop in supermarkets and eat in restaurants and buy gas and hire carpenters, lawyers and accountants, and go to doctors and hire geriatric nurses, etc., etc., etc. certainly could help solve the “youth problem,” unless you define the problem in terms of the ratio of old to young.

    Look, a community needs to have a school, a supermarket, a gas station and a few restaurants. If you’ve fallen below that set of amenities, I don’t see how you’d claw your way back up.

    If you are at the minimum, I could imagine trying to find strategies to hold the line. But its not as if every small city in the nation isn’t trying to attract business too.

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  2. Pete Klein says:

    Forget the coffins. What we need is more cremation. Burying dead people is a waste of land. Hardly anyone comes back to visit a grave after a year or two.
    All points made in the story, problems and possible solutions, are valid. It all started with industrialization and was recognized by: “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm after They’ve Seen Paree?”
    That was a WW I song.

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  3. Kathy says:

    Brian, I appreciate your research. We can have our opinions and interpretations but the data obviously speaks for itself.

    There is no doubt in my mind that local governments, communities, and planning boards must give a reason for young families to live here. Parents are willing to take a cut in pay if their children are going to have access to a good school and activities. It’s all about the next generation.

    We’re feeling the transition since technology has opened up the world to us. The typical energy that the youth has drives them to where they will see their dreams fulfilled. It’s worth discussing that small towns must be creative to keep up with times, and local governments must make it easier for fresh, new ideas.

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  4. OnewifeVetNewt says:

    I think it’s worth repeating a point others made earlier in the week. I know it makes the issue harder to handle, but Brian and the rest of us are really talking about two groups of communities here. One includes Canton-Potsdam and the Sara-Placid area. I don’t know a lot about Canton-Potsdam, but Saranac Lake actually gained population in the last census, and was experiencing a minor building boom before the recession started. Lake Placid is, and always will be, well, Lake Placid. I suspect school population declines here, and around Canton-Potsdam simply reflect national family size trends. Both areas are vibrant, and will continue to be so absent a major national economic disaster (or, SL’s case, closing of a prison).

    As for the other, remoter, communities, it is kind of hard to see what “we” can, or should, do about trends that reflect national economic and personal preference trends. The North Country is already dotted with abandoned towns: Timbuctoo, Adirondack, Conifer, and maybe a dozen more. Many people like to visit our wilderness with it’s forests, lakes, and mountains miles from civilization. Very few people want to live in the middle of it.

    That doesn’t mean we should not discuss, and do what we can to ameliorate the problem, of course.

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  5. Brian says:

    I think it’s fair to discuss what can be done to attract more people to move permanently to the Adirondacks and NNY. But melodramatic headlines like “Hamilton County on the endangered list” and phrases like “Most of the North County continues to hemorrhage population” (from Jon Alexander’s piece in the Post-Star) do more harm than good and are likely to scare the very people one would want to attract!

    As was pointed out here (, municipalities located inside the Blue Line grew in population from 1970-2006 at a rate 3 times faster than NYS as a whole. Furthermore, every county with territory inside the Blue Line grew from 2000 to 2010 except for Hamilton.

    And what of Hamilton? Since 1950, the county’s population has increased in every single census except for 2010. And it’s population is around 15% higher than in 1950. Hardly a death spiral. And it’s far too early to conclude whether the 2000-2010 decrease was a blip or the sign of a longer-term trend, particularly since the county has been prone to wild (percentage) swings in population in the short-term throughout its history but in the long-term, it’s always grown. It’s way premature to conclude from one census that this historic trend has reversed.

    (And by the way, coffins vs cradles are hints at what’s happening. Census data is what’s actually happening. The coffins-cradles thing is part of the picture, but insufficient in itself because it doesn’t take into account migration, a hugely important factor in our mobile society)

    Continue the discussion, but keep it reasonable, not tinged counterproductively with mild hysteria.

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  6. Kathy says:

    Additionally, if the small towns are “stuffy” and don’t want change, they will see a decrease in population.

    Potsdam for example, has been very selective. They like the small businesses and resist the big name competition. But we are a very consumer driven society. A Starbuck’s, Panera Bread, etc. will bring people here. And why do young people have to travel to Syracuse for a game of laser tag?

    We have to make the North Country viable for entrepreneurs.

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  7. Paul says:

    “Well retiring baby boomers who shop in supermarkets and eat in restaurants and buy gas and hire carpenters, lawyers and accountants, and go to doctors and hire geriatric nurses, etc., etc., etc. certainly could help solve the “youth problem,” unless you define the problem in terms of the ratio of old to young.”

    True but just like for the country in general we can’t simply have an economy based on cutting each others hair.

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  8. john says:

    If we are to have any impact on this situation, and I am not convinced that we can do all that much, we have to develop rational ideas about economic development. In the past 50-275 years, our regional economy has changed dramatically. The timber industry is a shadow of what it was, The mines and mills are gone. Most of the large-scale manufacturing is gone. These large scale industries drove the economies of small towns. HOw do you restore the community when its reason to exist has passed? Good or bad, these large enterprises are not coming back. We need to stop focussing on the notion that we are going to get some huge, multi-national company to come in here and all will be well and fine thereafter. Look at the stuff our political leaders talk about; huge incinerators, regional landfills, NASCAR tracks, Hadron Super Colliders, Nuclear Power plants, Six Flags Amusement Parks, Strand-board plants etc. Meanwhile, we get these fly-by-night companies coming here amidst great fanfare that they are going to open shop, employ hundreds, yadda-yadda and two months later the doors are locked, the buildings are dark, the phones go unanswered, emails are not returned. We’re like Charlie Brown and the football on this stuff!
    When we actually get comprehensive research on issues like infrastructure, (your guest raised the issue), we ignore it and go to the mat for things that are wildly unaffordable, likely harmful and totally contraindicated by the metrics of infrastructure and business development. How many people in this discussion have ever read the “2002 Northern Tier Transportation Study”? It is the most comprehensive science in existence of what will work and not work in all aspects of air, water, and land transportation systems to favor economic development in our region. Instead, we get politicians, special interests and lobbyists doing everything they can to run from these findings because the science doesn’t support their opinions and vested interests. As a result of these stalemates, little gets done.

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  9. Paul says:

    Brian (10:21), I don’t think that these stories are “harmful”. They are pretty informative. Again I don’t see anything inaccurate in them. True we don’t know if these are long term trends. You can wait and see what happens but what is the harm in trying to be more proactive based on what you know could happen? Forget about people for a minute, one important statistic to look at is the number of businesses. My guess is that in Saranac Lake we have fewer businesses than we had twenty years ago. My guess is this is the same for Tupper Lake, maybe other Adirondack towns as well. The exception to this rule may be the resort towns of Lake Placid and Lake George.

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  10. dave says:

    “I don’t think that these stories are “harmful”.”

    I can only speak for myself, but when I moved up here 3 years ago I was more or less expecting a certain kind of life – that expectation was primarily fueled by two sources: Our many visits to the area, and reports and representations from various media sources.

    In terms of the latter, I’m talking about newspaper articles, magazine pieces, online discussions, and even the Adirondacks documentary. From those sources, one thing was made very clear to us before we moved here… the area was hard on people, our new life in the Adirondacks would not be one of daily conveniences, and youthful socialization and interactions with people from our generation would be few and far between.

    Well, as I’ve stated many times, our actual experience has been the exact opposite. Reality could not have been any more different for us. And that is true of almost everyone I have become friends with up here.

    Now, the thing is… we were ok with that original expectation that the media helped create for us. We were prepared and willing to live that life. But I have to suspect that some people are not. I have to suspect that some people look into it, like we did, get the impression we got, and say “no way am I moving there!”

    So, I do think that the overall negative tone of this reporting and these conversations (besides being unwarranted in my experience) can have unintended consequences.

    That is why I think this sentence from Brian (MYOFC, not NCPR) is extremely important:

    “Continue the discussion, but keep it reasonable, not tinged counterproductively with mild hysteria.”

    I would add, continue to make efforts to tell the whole story. This installment begins to go in that direction by showing that this is not a trend unique to the North Country, and it is appreciated. Next I’d like to see an installment that features someone like all of the people I have met here… people who are experiencing the exact opposite of these reports. Young people who are happy as can be and are flourishing here. Trust me, those people do exist.

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  11. Paul: (I’m the Brian who posted above) please re-read exactly what I said. I said it’s useful to have these discussions about how to draw younger people into moving to/staying in the Adirondacks. What I said was counterproductive is the apocalyptic language of extinction, hemorrhaging population, etc.

    As for your assessment, there are too many probablys and guesses for me to pay them much mind.

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  12. Kathy says:

    Dave, you bring up some good points. I would be interested in hearing from those folks, too.

    In my area, (Potsdam/Canton/Massena), young families are not exactly flourishing. Unless you are a web designer that can work from home, own your own (successful) business that most likely was handed down from dad, medical field, or work construction, the limitations are glaring. The advancements in technology are huge and have forced our kids where those jobs will be found.

    It boils down to what people want out of life; what they are willing to do with or without.

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  13. Paul says:

    “As for your assessment, there are too many probablys and guesses for me to pay them much mind.”

    Definitely, these are just my observations having spent many years in those areas. You would have to look at the data on businesses to be sure (like Brian M. and others have done regarding the population trends). Brian, what are your observations? Is business on the rise, decline, or flat (over the last few decades, the last few years don’t cont)?

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  14. Paul says:

    You often hear that “tourism” is the engine of the Adirondack economy. In a 1999 study sponsored by the Wildlife conservation Society and others they found this:

    “About 14% of residents lived below poverty in 1990, compared to 9% for Upstate New York as a whole.”

    How does the area look today based on the new census data?

    Also they found this:

    “State or Local Government provides almost 33% of employment. According to one study, tourism accounts directly for at least 17% of all employment in the Adirondack Park, including total employment in eating and drinking establishments (Rockefeller Institute 1994). An unknown percentage of retail employment would also be dependent on tourism. Close to 7% of the employment in the Park is based in the paper, lumber and wood products sectors, compared to about 2% for the US as a whole.”

    How has this changed based on the new census data?

    It sounds like the Adirondack (and other NC economies) are based on a very precarious foundation. If they were to lose these government sector jobs tourism isn’t not going to be able to prop the place up.

    Maybe some of this apocalyptic language is in order?

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  15. Walker says:

    “Maybe some of this apocalyptic language is in order?”

    Well sure, if we want to drive folks away. Re-read Dave’s 12:36 comment.

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  16. mervel says:

    This is not a one size fits all in this discussion. What is happening in Ogdensburg and Massena may have very little in common with what is happening in the Park. Or even within the park what is happening in Mineville or Star Lake compared to what is happening in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid is probably very different.

    The time to plan for school closures and consolidations is now though if you wait it will happen at a time and way not of our choosing or choice.

    The funding funding ratio’s and costs of our small schools are not going to change and likely they will only get worse unless something drastically changes. We say we believe in schools, are we willing to pay for them with substantially higher property taxes than we are even paying now?

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  17. Paul says:

    Walker, this isn’t the chamber of commerce.

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  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’m starting to wonder about the productivity costs of having so many retirees around. At my place of business there are some regular old codgers that stop by to shoot the breeze and end up keeping me from my work. As the population ages will there be more of these black holes of productivity floating around sucking the rest of us into their Zone of Non-Production?

    Are these same people visiting other places as well and keep ing those businesses from making a profit? Are these the same characters who spent their careers wandering around the office keeping their business from making a profit?

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  19. Mervel says:

    Oh no, this sounds like my normal day, I wonder how much productivity I have crushed?

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  20. Walker says:

    Paul writes: “…we can’t simply have an economy based on cutting each others hair.”

    Paul, I’m talking about retirees creating jobs for younger workers. Retirees have investment income and social security, so it’s not just “utting each others hair.” See Florida.

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  21. Jim M says:


    The data posted on the Almanack website is incorrect and is the result of manipulation. The FACT is according to the 2010 population of the Adirondack towns wholly within the Park declined for the first time in 60 years. This is a fact beyond dispute as the results are based on population totals for these for each census from 1950 through 2010.

    Fact: The population of the Adirondack Park in 2000 was 131,151 persons; in 2010 the population of the Park was 129,506, a decline of 1,645 persons (source: APRAP);

    FACT: The population of towns wholly within the Park in 2000 was 107,247 persons, in 2010 the population of towns wholly within the Park was 105,186, a decline of 2,050 persons (source: US Census Bureau);

    FACT: 53 of the 92 towns wholly or partially within the Park and 7 of the 11 villages experienced a population loss from 2000 to 2010 (source US Census Bureau);

    FACT: from 2007 to 2011 the 61 school districts in the Park have lost an estimated 1,279 students – the equivalent of 4 school districts in 4 years time.

    Furthermore, the data from Carsey is misleading as the report only provides totals to the county level. The FACT once again at the municipal level the vast majority of the municipalities wholly within the Park are experiencing declining population. Furthermore, to most accurate one needs to also look at the municipal populations by age cohort. The population increases that are occurring are exclusively within the age groups of 55 and up and most of this increase is among the cohorts of 65 and up.

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  22. Paul: Where I live, I’d say business is slightly on the rise overall. Though as per your comments, it’s merely my gut talking.

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  23. Paul says:

    Walker, I agree with you, Those things you mentioned are very important for the economy. But an economy that is not too heavily weighted in services is more robust. Can the area attract some technology firms and light manufacturing? Not sure. If it could that would be good. Florida is an excellent example of a pretty well balanced approach.

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  24. John Warren says:

    Brian Mann,

    Since the conversation has moved to this post and I finally have time to respond to you, I thought I’d do it here.

    Specifically you said: “To make their case, they just have to explain how Hamilton County functions over the next several decades when its population drops by nearly half and most of the remaining residents are over 60.”

    You could not be more off the mark. We have already made our case (again and again, almost entirely unreported by local pro-development media). I’ll recap it briefly:

    1 – The history of the Adirondacks has been one of growth. Since 1970, the Adirondacks has grown three times faster than the state average and that doesn’t include the enormous number of (heretofore uncounted) second homes that are built in the Park each year.

    2- The movement of young people from rural areas is part of the much larger baby boom trend – the only reason we’re greying is because of the baby boom.

    3- The Adirondacks is doing better economically than other rural areas in New York State (at least two studies have shown this now), as do the unemployment numbers from Hamilton County and the recent study by the Fed.

    4 – Vermont’s population remained essentially unchanged for 100 years from 1850 to 1950 while young people moved west in large numbers. The state’s population centers shifted and afterward it provided job opportunities for young people and they eventually the population rebounded dramatically.

    Perhaps most importantly – you are using possible outcomes to make your claims, not real numbers. You want us to defend our arguments against what you THINK will happen in 30 or 40 years, not what has happened. At least not what has happened that has been any different from what’s happened elsewhere. And your projections, no matter how well conceived by educated professionals, are not a fact – they are an estimated fact about the future ignoring the longer historical trend and a number of other contextual details. This is even acknowledged in the recent Cornell study.

    You’re main argument rests on a single ten-year population count, which doesn’t include summer residents and their economic impact, that doesn’t generally include the larger context of the contrary facts, and that was taken during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You are using anecdotal stories chosen (with no input from us) by you to make your argument and are pointing to local school consolidations (which don’t remotely compare with those in other areas of the state).

    And now WE have to prove our point? That’s rich. You’re the one making the claims with incredible rhetoric about coffins and cradles, we’re the ones saying wait a minute, you’re jumping the gun. You are the one using language such as “dangerous” and “endangered” which has been pointed out by several here and elsewhere may actually be harmful to your cause (which I thought professional journalists were not supposed to have) of encouraging young people to move here or stay.

    It’s also been pointed out that despite your claims that this is not about 40-year arguments of anti-environmentalists and anti-APA folks – the fact is these arguments have been their main argument since the 1970s. This is the first opportunity they’ve even had to make the claim with numbers (however misguided) and you’re the one making that argument. Your stories are being spread far and wide in their networks and held up as proof that the APA and Forest Preserve are our problem. You are among the main reasons these old arguments are resurfacing again. It might be argued that at a time when protests around the country are highlighting our economic disparity, you’ve sidetracked that discussion with a 40-year old anti-environmentalist argument.

    What’s more, your argument that the APA should be an economic development agency (a notion many see as completely at odds with its role in protecting the park) makes your claim that this is not about those 40-year old arguments pretty suspect. That’s not to say that your pieces are politically motivated, but you crossed the line into the perception of political motivation for many people we’ve heard from with your “Endangered Species” article in Adirondack Life.

    But let’s be clear so we are not sidetracked (apparently a bigger crime in comments here than calling local people ignorant racist rednecks). I’m not saying you’re using your bully pulpit to push your agenda, I am arguing here with your assessment that a small sub-set of data is the defining data.

    You don’t get to create future facts and then require us to argue against them. It’s incumbent on you, (especially given the potential harm you could be doing will all your well publicized rhetoric) to back up your arguments with more than anecdotes and future what-ifs.

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  25. mervel says:

    I am not sure I would want Florida as a model, although I think it shows that having a large number of retiree’s is not always a bad thing for an economy creating jobs for younger generations.

    I have been reading some articles lately about the benefits of cities for a society. The thesis seems to be that cities are more environmentally friendly and more efficient and thus we should be encouraging growth in cities and discouraging living in rural areas.

    I don’t know how that kind of thinking will play into the national response to a dwindling rural population?

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  26. John Warren says:


    All your data is based on a single ten-year period during the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. And you’re charging others with manipulating the data? That’s laughable.

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  27. Snowflake says:

    Poor salaries and high property taxes are part of the equation that needs to be addressed. Even someone who makes decent money from govt employment spend a ridiculous percentage of their income on property tax. Many will be leaving the area as soon as they retire to states with less of a tx burden to stretch their retirement dollars. I know several who have been spending their vacations looking for property elsewhere to buy while the costs are down and hoping that there own home will manage to sell when they are ready.

    Investment in technology infrastructure, cultural amenities, and recreational pursuits appeal to both retirees as well as millenials. Attractive communities with walkable villages, thriving arts and music scene and bike baths attract rather than repell. Saranac Lake is headed in that direction. Tupper Lake is hoping for a mega resort, factory revival or Walmart. Lake Placid is sticking with its Athletic Olympic History and Base Camp for the High Peaks. One only needs to look to the communities that are having growth across the nation to see what is working and what is not. Even businesses want to be in areas where their employees have a good quality of life. Let’s start there. Kudos to Saranac Lake for actually doing it. Tupper needs to stop wishing and get fishing. Stop putting all their eggs in one ACR basket and stop trying to put down people with other ideas.

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  28. (Downstate) Dave says:

    Hi – I think this discussion is really interesting. And I should say first that I am not from the North Country. I am a down-stater who loves getting up to the Adirondacks (Forked Lake) to camp, or the various marathons to run, etc…

    So, forgive my naivete, but it’s unclear to me what people want from the North Country. It seems like there’s a contigent who is very happy with the status quo, while there are others who are uncomfortable with shrinking schools reducing their programs, and the propsect of shrinking tax-bases leading to local gov’ts unable to provide basic services (this is already happening, right?)

    No one can really say what will happen in the future. It is important to point out (as someone has) that we are in the midst of one of our country’s worse financial periods, so that of course shakes things up.

    But this comment space is a great place to spell out your vision: what do you want to happen? I really want to know what people who live in the NC want it to look like in 10, 20 years. (Perhaps selfishly, because I fantasize about leaving NYC for the NC, but as a public school teacher with a 14-month old, I’m intimidated by the dire news regarding schools up there.)

    Do people really think the restrictions placed on development w/i the Blue Line is holding the area back? How so? What isn’t happening that realistically could be?

    Some people seem to be standing up for the status quo, but school and municipal consolidation is happening, and that means things are changing whether people want it to or not.

    Again, I apologize for my down-state ignorance, but as someone who has a long-distance love affair with the area, I really am interested in what people have to say about the state of its future.

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  29. Brian Mann says:

    John –

    I’m going to address your claims about my political bias in a moment. First, let’s tackle the factual basis of your argument.

    You write that the “history of the Adirondacks have been one of growth” and you use a time frame of 1970 to the present.

    While the overall population of the Park has grown percentage-wise over that four decade period, the actual numbers of people in the area has grown only very slightly.

    This matters, because during the period of ‘growth’ we didn’t build the kind of robust, vibrant communities that could sustain a downturn.

    (The rest of New York grew by hundreds of thousands of people, while the Park’s communities grew by thousands.)

    Secondly, a lot of that growth was concentrated in a handful of areas.

    So while it’s correct in the abstract to suggest that the Park’s population was growing, the actual experience of many communities is starkly different than the one you suggest.

    Much of that growth was also provided by an influx of thousands of prison inmates who were shipped to the Adirondacks against their will, arriving at new prisons in Moriah, Lyon Mountain, Ray Brook, and Gabriels.

    Thirdly, your trend-line misleads woefully by disguising what has happened since 2000, which is a painful decline of population in many communities.

    Twelve Adirondack towns — including many key hub communities — lost more than 10% of their populations in the last decade alone. An equal number lost 8-9% of their people.

    No one involved in the debate over the Park’s future sees that as a healthy or sustainable trend-line. No one.

    Fourthly, you suggest that demographic trends projected forward reflect what I “think” will happen and reflect “what-ifs.” This is just goofy. It doesn’t engage or grapple honestly with the facts at all.

    A wide array of experts have now looked at the population trends in the North Country. Education experts have modeled future student enrollment. Demographers have modeled birth-death-and-aging trends.

    We have Census data, Cornell’s demographic numbers, surveys from the Carsey Institute, APRAP’s data, projections for school districts.

    I know you take issue with APRAP’s methodology. Fair enough.

    But we know have a wide array of other tested, widely respected, non-controversial tools for predicting population change, coming from people with no political axe to grind.

    And they all reach the same conclusions.

    What’s more, we have real-world actual data proving that those trendlines
    are, in fact, happening now.

    Even communities that have experienced an influx of retirees, stabilizing their overall populations, have seen sharp drops in the number of young people with kids.

    Finally, I want to make an argument for what people in my business call shoe-leather research.

    If I were out in North Country communities finding robust, vibrant, stable downtowns and neighborhoods and institutions, I would be the first person to question whether this demographic data did in fact reflect reality.

    But that’s not what I’m seeing. I’ve been a journalist her for thirteen years.

    In that time, I’ve seen basic services vanish. I’ve seen churches mothballed, groceries shut down — in important hub communities like Indian Lake and Willsboro.

    So while I think your treatment of the facts is intellectually suspect (“everyone else is wrong and I’m right” is a tough position to defend) I also think it fails to pass the common sense test.

    So let me issue a challenge: Get in your car and go for a drive. Talk to people. Find out what they’re experiencing. Listen with an open mind.

    If you find that the facts on the ground are really sharply different from the data and statistics, you’re larger claims would have a lot more traction with me.

    But as someone who has made that drive, over and over again, I think you’ll find that the research offers a pretty accurate picture of our world.

    Talking about what that means in an open-minded, civil way is what we’re trying to do.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  30. Brian Mann says:

    John –

    Now for the political stuff. You want this discussion to be about a narrow set of issues in the Adirondack Park.

    But this series has focused on the North Country in general, not the Adirondack Park in specific.

    On the contrary, my reporting suggests that the trend-lines inside the blue line differ very little, if at all, from other rural areas in the North Country.

    The discussion of the out-migration of young people in our region focused specifically on two people in the St. Lawrence Valley who live outside the Park.

    The expert we spoke to at the Carsey Institute made no reference to the Park, except to suggest that “beauty” and “scenic lakes” could in fact be a tool for revitalizing populations in some rural towns.

    So I think you’re shadow-boxing here.

    Now let me address the Adirondack Life article briefly.

    Your interpretation of that article has been superficial and thinly reasoned from the start.

    Yes, I suggest some ideas for reform and change inside the Park, including some proposals which (as I acknowledged) a lot of folks disagree with.

    But those proposals included a lot of nuanced ideas about the future of the forest preserve, the importance of environmental protections, and the need for equally profound reforms among local government leaders.

    I don’t mind you disagreeing with specific ideas. That’s what the article was for — to help spark a discussion. I think it worked in that regard.

    What I take issue with is your consistent effort to reduce the article to a simple pro-development, anti-environment screed.

    That’s unfair and it’s not factually accurate.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  31. mervel says:

    Even paying an $8000.00 per year tax bill on a 200,000 house (or 670 per month JUST in taxes) (4% is the rule of thumb in Canton), even with that we are having to let teachers go and look at much larger class sizes. Also there is no current solution on the radar, taxes will go up again next year and the year after and the year after, they have NEVER gone down. I think people could actually accept this because we love our schools, but now the schools are suffering and we are still paying more, where does this cycle end?

    We could start there with thinking about why a young family with children would or would not want to live here.

    I think this discussion is worthwhile just to bring up how we are going to plan for fewer schools and fewer community services in general.

    The trend is not reversible, the key is how to respond in a way that makes sense.

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  32. mervel says:

    The Adirondack park is fine particularly when compared to what is happening in northern Franklin county and St. Lawrence County. The first order of business should be to attack the grinding poverty that afflicts our region.

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  33. Pete Klein says:

    If you think it is expensive to live here, try NYC or Long Island.
    Unemployment? Check out the unemployment rate in the Bronx.
    But those areas continue to add population.
    And if college educated kids graduating this year and in recent years are having a hard time finding work that pays enough to pay off their loans, what makes you think things should be better up here?

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  34. Jim M says:

    John Warren:

    The trends cited for overall population date back to 1950. What the more recent data demonstrates is that this trend is accelerating. Furthermore, look at the projections as prepared by the Program for Applied Demographics at Cornell. These projections extend through 2040. These estimates are based on formulaic approaches accounting for birth and death rates and migration in and out the delineated area studied. Therefore, a 90 year analysis can be presented that shows consistent and steady decline. These are not merely subject to economic fluctuations as you suggest.

    Your premise is based on talking points that are blind to the facts supported by data. The Park population is in decline, a decline that is especially severe among the younger cohorts and decline that is most prevalent as one looks deeper into the geographic center of the Park. These are undeniable facts that are grounded in decades of recorded data and decades of solid projections from a credible and respected source.

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  35. Paul says:

    “2- The movement of young people from rural areas is part of the much larger baby boom trend – the only reason we’re greying is because of the baby boom.”

    Incorrect. The “baby boom” is causing an aging of the general population but it is not responsible for the trend that has younger people leaving rural areas and moving to more urban areas. This trend is much older than this generation. And it is a much more severe problem for areas we are discussing. Some argue that this trend can be countered by even more older people moving to these areas to retire. First, that might help in some areas of the Adirondacks but it will not happen much in other areas of the NC. Secondly, this will actually exacerbate some of the problems. Basically you will still have the problem of not enough young people to fill some vital service positions, and you will have a higher demand for these services. This is already a major problem in some areas.

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  36. Terence says:

    I now skip right past Jim Warren’s comments because he repeats the same points over and over. His number one tactic is treat the ‘uptick’ in population as if it applies uniformly to the area — when in fact only a tiny handful of places have gone up. Most places have gone down, and dramatically so.

    Let’s look at Port Henry: you could do an entire series on the changing nature of this village. Eroding tax base, crumbling infrastructure, churches on the verge of closing. Local business like Aubuchon’s Hardware — the backbone of any healthy community — gone. Many residents depressed and resentful, unskilled (don’t get me started).

    And everywhere you look, the beauty of the mountains and Lake Champlain, dignified old architecture. The sense that it could be something else, and the dawning realization that it simply won’t be. Too far from anywhere to commute. What young person in his or her right mind would stay here? Sigh.

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  37. Paul says:

    Here is a question. Why can’t Saranac Lake, the largest town in the Adirondack park support a movie theater? We talk about these outlying towns but when I was growing up there we had a movie theater in SL, one in Lake Placid (still there). There even was a drive in between Saranac Lake a Lake Placid at one time. It is now a field of small red pine trees.

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  38. dave says:

    Jim M., Brian M.

    I’m curious. Have Adirondack communities ever been in a state that you would deem healthy?

    Is there some previous point in time that you would point to and say, it would be great if we could get back to that?

    Since it was just conceded that the area has grown over a 40 year period (albeit, not enough, or not in the right categories, in your opinion) – I have to assume you would not suggest we go back to a period when there were actually LESS people in the Park.

    So you must be advocating then that we need to push into yet unseen territory up here with a population larger than the Park has ever experienced?

    Is that accurate?

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  39. Brian Mann says:

    Dave –

    First, obviously there were times in the past when North Country towns were thriving. Drive through downtowns in Malone or Tupper Lake or Port Henry or Willsboro and you will see the architectural bones of a very different era.

    But that era is gone. It existed because of a different national culture, a different economy, different modes of transportation, a much more robust natural resources economy, etc.

    Put bluntly, we can’t afford nostalgia, or wishful thinking. Logging will never again be a growth-employment industry. Not because of the forest preserve, but because logging is hyper-efficient now. Most mines are gone for good.

    So the question going forward – and this is a question a lot of interesting people are grappling with – is what do we want our communities to look like in the future? What are the alternatives to steady decline?

    What policy ideas or community efforts could invent something new going forward?

    So in a sense, when you ask if people are trying to push into “yet unseen territory” the answer is yes.

    Let me again, though, point out that your underlying assumption, that the future of the North Country (or the Park) is one with “a population larger than the Park has ever seen” is simply and factually wrong.

    If that were the factual basis for all this, there would be no discussion here.

    But what we see going forward is a rapid aging and decline of the overall population, trends that are already manifest in many of our most importnat communities.

    Those are realities on the ground — right now. Many of the communities I cited earlier actually lost more than 15% of their population in a single decade.

    Independent researchers expect those trends to continue and accelerate.

    I know this is tough. It would be great if John W.’s point of view were remotely accurate.

    It would be great to say, ‘Hey, this is all working pretty well — let’s just muddle along.’

    But again — no one involved in the public policy debate in the North Country believes that. No one.

    You don’t find environmentalists or local leaders or business leaders or educators or anyone really who shares that sanguine point of view.

    Where people differ is the question ‘What do we do about it?’ Fortunately, the conversation there, too, has become far more nuanced and interesting.

    — Brian, NCPR

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  40. Paul says:

    Dave, there have been times where I would say that some areas were healthy even thriving:

    I would think a healthy population for Saranac Lake as an example would be about 15,000 residents.

    Now most will argue that we can’t have another “TB era” of success. Of course that is ridiculous you just have to find a new driver for the economy. But you can’t do it when there is a feeling that progress is bad.

    I get creamed here every time I try and suggest that some sort of development is a good idea.

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  41. Pete Klein says:

    As Bing Crosby once sang, “You’ve got to accentuate the positive Eliminate the negative Latch on to the affirmative.”
    We here in Indian Lake got our movie theater back and a whole lot more.
    We have the great ALCA in Blue Mnt. Lake, producing plays and concerts all over the Adirondacks.
    We are minus a super market but do have two great convenience stores and a new pizzaria just opened up.
    I know gloom and doom is fun and in the news business blood leads, because as Don Henley sang in “Dirty Laundry,” “Kick ’em when they’re up. Kick ’em when they’re down.”
    But could we please sell and enjoy what you do have? In that way, maybe, just maybe we might hold on to some and attract a few.

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  42. dave says:

    “Let me again, though, point out that your underlying assumption, that the future of the North Country (or the Park) is one with “a population larger than the Park has ever seen” is simply and factually wrong.”

    Brian, I never made this assumption.

    I was asking you if that is what you think it will take to get to a point where you would be happy with things here.

    Since you clearly have not been happy with the state of things here… and you seem to be linking this problem to population… AND the Park has more people now than it did 40 years ago…

    The only logical conclusion to draw from all of that is that you think we need MORE people. More than we currently have, and more than we have ever had here in the Park.

    Is that not a true statement?

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  43. Jim: The data on the Almanack’s website is not only sourced, but linked to. They are correct, as per the data analyzed.

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  44. dave says:

    Paul, Brian M.

    Right… exactly.

    You just conceded that Adirondack towns were indeed thriving at some point in the past. Which means they were thriving at a time when there were LESS people in the Park overall, because you also conceded that the Park has grown over a 40 year period.

    So why exactly is it that you think we need to be concentrating on population growth?

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  45. zeke says:

    I find young people(20- ??), who have some skills (academic or trade) to be very nomadic these days. They want to go and do and see for them selves. In my opinion that’s exactly where they should be. Other young people without the skills are very trapped the military is about the only way to get a leg up. In the meantime, older folks; want their old person tax break or least do not want their taxes to rise. The question how do we(NYS) pay for it all or what is going to have to go is one that will take a long time to hash out. Don’t worry if we don’t Uncle Andrew will tell us how it is going to be.

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  46. John Warren says:


    That’s exactly what they’re arguing. It’s the ‘only growth is good’ argument, and it’s even weaker than the ‘in the last 10 years we’ve lost population so we’re doomed’ argument. They fantasize about something that doesn’t exist. It’s laudable to want those things, it’s another matter altogether to say we don’t have them, our woes are worse than others (when they aren’t), and that we’re doomed to extinction.


    I take issue with this notion that you have a monopoly on the reading the tenor of the Adirondacks. I haven’t been living in a bubble – I’ve been here on and off since 1969 (my father was a guide here) and a year-round resident for the past dozen years. My wife’s family has been here since the 1790s. Every day I hear stories from her day at work as a county visiting nurse working with the elderly in poverty. Disagree with me about my conclusions, but I’m not somehow less informed than you. I’m a historian with an advanced degree (not that it matters to me, but you seem to lend weight to that kind of thing) and I’m suggesting you do not have an appropriate historical perspective.

    To take your points quickly:

    You seem to confuse the rate of growth with actual numbers of people. I know you know the difference, so why are using that comparison? Of course we grew by fewer people, we had fewer to start with. The region has grown since 1790 the earliest actual data available (not just 1970) – that’s the fact. It has grown faster than the statewide average since 1970.

    Of course growth is concentrated, but that’s skewing the data for your purposes. If we only looked at the concentrated areas your disappearing Adirondacks theory would be even more unsound – but that’s not what we’re doing, we’re looking at the whole Park. Concentrated areas have generally grown at a MUCH faster rate than the rest of the state. Those places spread. Witness the expanded development in just the last ten years in Minerva and up the hill towards Newcomb, in Johnsburg, in Brant Lake, Chester. The fact is development was more concentrated, but it’s much less so now. I’ve already pointed out with the Vermont example, that population shifts. But we’re not Buffalo, or Detroit or Schenectady – those places have lost population; they saw services vanish, lots of schools close. They would consider your drop in some scattered communities the same way I do, overreaction. They would envy Hamilton County’s lower unemployment rate. Many would no doubt love to live hear, if they could afford to leave their poverty stricken cities.

    And so we get to your shoe-leather research (a.k.a anecdotal evidence by someone who already has an opinion on this). You should answer Dave’s question. You are seeking some unquantifiable ‘feel’ that I’ve never seen in rural communities. In fact, areas of our country that have grown exponentially in the last 10 years (the period of your study apparently) are suburban wastelands devoid of what you describe. They’re bedroom communities. Whatever you seek, you won’t find it there despite the advanced rate of growth they’ve ‘enjoyed’.

    You’ve “seen churches mothballed, groceries shut down” – who hasn’t? Nearly every rural community in America has seen this. You continue to use one population dip in the last ten years (of economic hardship) in some isolated communities in a overall growth region and call it a trend downward. That should end this part of the conversation right there, except it appears you want to make this argument work for some reason.

    Finally, reducing my now extensive critiques of your endangered species theories as amounting to “a simple pro-development, anti-environment screed” does exactly what you charge me with doing.

    I’ve offered more nuance and specifics about this argument than arguably anyone else and others have joined my critique to demonstrate a number of countervailing facts.

    There are, however, plenty of people who agree that you are reading this latest data wrong, out of historical context, and without an appreciation of the impacts. I’m not the only one.

    And Terence – you’re wrong, more places have grown than have shrunk, and the down rate is not dramatic by anyone standards. The discussion is about the future, the current drop is not that dramatic, the worst of those places, Hamilton County, has a lower unemployment rate than your county. The defeatism you express is depressing. It’s also incorrect. Go visit Troy where a renaissance of sorts is underway. If you stop telling people how depressing your community is, you might find they’ll want to come there. Of course, you’ll have to get Brian Mann to stop telling them it’s depressing too.

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  47. mervel says:

    I don’t think there is yet full agreement that these trends are bad. Certainly they are bad for some but they are also good for others.

    The plains were mentioned earlier. The plains states have the lowest unemployment in the United States right now they are in good shape economically. Look at South Dakota or North Dakota or Nebraska. They had a huge exodus of young people and many many small towns died. But the larger towns are doing great, Sioux Falls, Lincoln, Aberdeen, Grand Forks, etc. (Certainly South Dakota has horrible poverty in the Reservations which has existed for 100 years), but as a state its overall unemployment rate is very low. I am not saying these are perfect places, I am just saying they went through a huge process of aging rural communities and shrinking and dying towns, it didn’t turn out all bad.

    Right now we have 11% unemployment in St. Lawrence County. I don’t see how young people leaving to find better opportunities in that case is a bad thing?

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  48. John Warren says:

    “It would be great if John W.’s point of view were remotely accurate. ”

    Are you kidding?

    What fact is wrong? I’ve cited my sources time and again. You are basing your argument on the last ten years during the greatest economic down turn since the great depression and on the down slope of the baby boom. You throw out all other countervailing facts and base your entire theory on those ten years to extrapolate 40 years into the future. I’ve even pointed to Vermont, which had 100 years of stagnant population and hasn’t been affected the way you describe.

    I’m not the one with all the hysterical rhetoric here about cradles and coffins, and endangered species and dangerous population drops. You’re the one making the claims, I’m providing more complete set of data that shows you may be wrong with all your doomsday predictions.

    I’m simply pointing out that you are overreacting and trying to get you to cover stories about the much larger and important forces at work in our local economies, which I stated clearly as well: a generally aging population and lack of pensions and affordable healthcare to support them, low wages, and the cost of higher education that leaves young people in debt at a time when they should be able to start their own businesses and raise families.

    I’ll wager your crystal ball against my historical precedent any time – you’re not a soothsayer, or for that matter even a trained crystal ball reader.

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  49. Paul says:

    “The only logical conclusion to draw from all of that is that you think we need MORE people. More than we currently have, and more than we have ever had here in the Park.”

    Dave, isn’t another conclusion that he thinks we need a MORE DIVERSE population as far as the age demographics go. That seems to be one conclusion that you could make. I don’t see how Brian’s stories are arguing for MORE people like you describe.

    “So why exactly is it that you think we need to be concentrating on population growth?”

    I think that you will see that there is a sort of “critical mass” consideration when you are talking about a thriving community. If you can do it with fewer people that is fine but I think you will find that some industries won’t even consider a particular area if the market is too small.

    You seem to have an aversion to growth. What is the problem. We are not talking about Shanghai here.

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  50. Paul says:

    “You just conceded that Adirondack towns were indeed thriving at some point in the past. Which means they were thriving at a time when there were LESS people in the Park overall, because you also conceded that the Park has grown over a 40 year period.”

    Dave, not quite sure what your point is here. If the population of the Park were not slowly growing over time you could always expand the lines till you get the answer you want.

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