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. mervel says:

    But maybe we would have stronger regional communities places like Malone, Plattsburgh, Canton, Saranac Lake, Masssena if there was a move toward de populating the very small and tiny communities? This is what has happened in other areas.

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  2. Paul says:

    “Of course, you’ll have to get Brian Mann to stop telling them it’s depressing too.”

    John, I share people’s concern that the future of some of these areas is not as bright as it could be. It sounds like you share that view when you describe some of the current and future challenges ahead.

    These stories and discussion are not driving anyone away. What is your evidence to back up that claim?

    For the few stories I have seen on this side of the issue I have seen hundreds of others that describe the other side of things. For example Adirondack Life which you mention focuses almost entirely on the good stuff. I used to get it but got sick of too many ads! The Explorer and your own Almanack do a good job as Peter Klein describes of “accentuating the positive”.

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  3. Here’s an idea… try focusing on improving the quality of life. Have people be a little more open to diversity. Get more broadband. Blow up education funding (so everything mandated is funded by the mandating government agency) so people can afford to live in their houses. Do that and the population growth will take care of itself. All of this can be done without gutting the pristine environment that makes the place so wonderful in the first place.

    But there’s something upspoken that no one’s addressing: I think some current residents don’t want significant population growth. They view the Park as their little secret and don’t want it tainted by an infusion of “outsiders.” They put up with the tourists because they bring in a lot of money and don’t stay year-round.

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  4. Paul says:

    “move toward de populating the very small and tiny communities”

    Maybe not a bad idea based on my critical mass argument but it sounds a little cold!

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  5. Paul says:

    “They view the Park as their little secret and don’t want it tainted by an infusion of “outsiders.””

    There is something true about this. But I think it is more complex. Like I said I grew up in Saranac Lake and own a second home there. Yes, there are many people who have this view you describe regarding seasonal residents or tourists which is very common even in (and maybe especially) growing resort areas.

    But at the same time you will find what someone else here described that these areas are very open and friendly to the folks that want to settle there and make the town a better community.

    The people you describe above are ME. Get out and Stay Out!

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  6. Paul says:

    “They view the Park as their little secret and don’t want it tainted by an infusion of “outsiders.””

    Brian (4:02), as one example you could argue that Michael Foxman and Tom Lawson have been welcomed to Tupper Lake with open arms, and they are certainly outsiders. The folks that may have taken the view above are a few environmental groups opposed to the project and a few disgruntled neighbors. But it looks like it can go either way.

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  7. Walker says:

    Jim M writes “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)”

    OK, but that’s 164.5 people per year out of a six million acre area, 9,375 square miles. That means we lost one person per year from every 57 square miles. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t strike me as anything you could call a drastic decline.

    Another way to look at it is that the park lost 1.3% of its population in a decade, or just over 0.1% of its population each year in the course of a decade the was economically disastrous for the whole country.

    I’d say that the FACT is that this is not anything to hyperventilate over.

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  8. Brian Mann says:

    John W. –

    Let’s set aside the personalities, the politics, and the ad hominem stuff and boil it down to a couple of simple, factual questions.

    Cornell University’s Program on Applied Demographics says North Country counties will lose a total of 74,000 people over the next three decades.

    That reflects a loss of roughly 1,800 people every year for the next three decades.

    (Put another way, that’s the equivalent of one community of Indian Lake vanishing every twelve months.)

    Only two counties buck this trend: Saratoga (which is part of the expanding Capital Region metro area) and Jefferson (where the Fort Drum military base is expanding.)

    Every other county — including ten out of the eleven counties in the Adirondacks — will see a remarkably rapid decline in population, with the sharpest losses coming among young and working age people.

    So here are two very basic questions:

    1. Do you think Cornell is wrong? If so, why? Is it at all troubling to you that their numbers jive with research done by many others?

    2. If you don’t think Cornell is wrong, do you think our rural region can afford to lose more than 70,000 people without serious implications?

    — Brian, NCPR

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  9. Walker says:

    Brian, there are some 422,000 residents of the North Country, according to Wikipedia. So 74,000 people is 17.5%, a sizable proportion to be sure. But it is forecast to occur over thirty years. So that is about half a percent per year, hardly falling off a cliff.

    How many thirty year projections pan out? So much can change in three decades! Ten years ago, the nation’s economy was booming. Ten years from now it could be booming again. Projecting current trends to continue indefinitely does not strike me as sensible, especially when the decade that establishes the trend line is an extremely unusual one.

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  10. Brian Mann says:

    Walker –

    First, I respect what you’re saying. You don’t think losing 74,000 people is all that dire — it’s “just” 17 percent of the population.

    Fair enough. Most policy makers don’t see things that way. Losing that chunk of a community is very tough medicine.

    Especially in places where school populations are already under 100, for example, a 17% decline will be very, very meaningful.

    But even if you grant that fair people can differ on the meaning of this large a population loss, you’re still not grappling with the aging part.

    It’s the two trends together that matter.

    By 2040, Hamilton County will have dwinded to the population that it had in the 1850s. But unlike the 1850s, the people living there will be predominately in their 60s, rather than predominately in their 20s.

    That’s a big change.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  11. Walker says:

    Put another way, every year approximately one of every two hundred people will be gone, on average, if the trend of the last decade continue.

    The other thing to consider is this: other than getting in broadband, what, exactly does anyone envision Onchiota doing to retain its younger population?

    The town of Harrietstown got approval for the Harrietstown Business Park in the mid-1990s. Currently there are said to be two occupants, though if you go back in there, things seem mighty quiet. Isn’t this just the sort of thing we could be doing to bail our sinking ship? Is it working?

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  12. dave says:

    “Dave, not quite sure what your point is here.”

    Paul, I tried to keep my point simple, but will attempt to outline it again in more detail for you.

    What I am addressing is this. Brian M. has clearly stated that his concern here is over the the health of Adirondack communities. He feels that communities are in decline, he is not seeing vibrant, robust downtowns and neighborhoods, etc etc. What he has chosen to connect to that observation is population data. He sees data that predicts a declining population for the area, and has decided that this is the reason communities are struggling.

    Now, you and Brian M. then went on to concede – in the comments of this very blog post – that there were towns in the Park that you considered to be thriving in the past.

    Here is the problem…

    In that past, the Park had less people than it does now.

    So, how can anyone continue to make the case that the key to thriving communities in this area is population?

    The argument is reading like this…

    Your Observation: We had thriving towns when there were less people here

    Your Observation: We have less thriving towns now that there are more people here

    Your Conclusion: To get thriving towns again we need to keep or attract more people

    That makes absolutely no sense. It is logically tortured. If anything, based on those two observations, I’d expect your conclusion to be that we should intentionally shrink the population so that we can get back to the numbers when we used to heve what the two of you considered thriving towns.

    But that would be silly.

    BOTH of those conclusions are silly.

    And that is because the argument just doesn’t make sense. Besides the questionable observations and interpretation of data… the whole premise is flawed.

    Thriving communities are a much more complex and nuanced (to borrow the term) subject than just how many people are coming into and leaving an area. Don’t we all know large, depressed communities… and small, fun, vibrant communities? Of course we do.

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  13. Walker says:

    Brian, you’re leaving out the question of the likelihood of the present trend continuing for thirty solid years. Possible, certainly, but how likely? If it only continues for five years and then reverses, we’ll have lost 2.5% or thereabouts.

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  14. Walker says:

    Brian Mann says: “You don’t think losing 74,000 people is all that dire — it’s “just” 17 percent of the population.”

    Surely you don’t honestly believe that that is an accurate articulation of my position.

    Clearly what I am saying is that I don’t think that losing 0.5% of a population each year for a few years is all that dire.” But if you want to have a conniption over it, based on the idea that it’s certain to continue forever, that’s your choice.

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  15. Walker says:

    Brian Mann says “By 2040, Hamilton County will have dwinded to the population that it had in the 1850s.”

    Er, that’s true, if and only if the present trend continues unabated for thirty solid years. Tell you what… I’ll bet you $10,000 that it doesn’t (if I live that long).

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  16. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’ve said it before (or maybe someone else said it and I stole the idea) we need a TV sitcom to define the area. Nobody has any idea about a region until there is a TV show set there. What that Bob Newhart show did for Vermont or Northern Exposure did for Alaska we could have for Northern NY.

    Of course it doesn’t have to be a sitcom. “Breaking Bad” is good for New Mexico. (If you Do go to New Mexico I recommend eating local mexican food, though, stay away from the chicken joints). We should get Russell Banks working on a pilot but keep Atom Egoyan away from it, he obviously has no clue what the Adirondacks are about.

    Nobody knows that New York State is anything more than the 5 boroughs except that they are vaguely aware that there is an Upstate that includes Westchester County and Woodstock and that it snows in Buffalo. Everything else exists in some vague geographic quantum state; when out-of-staters pay attention to them Albany, Syracuse, the Finger Lakes exist in New York State. But the Adirondacks might as well be West Vermont or South Canada.

    I could pitch this thing…think Gilligan’s Island in the mountains. A billionaire and his wife get trapped at his Camp by a landslide and a flood with his caretaker and housekeeper; a Forest Ranger; APA commissioner; the women’s Olympic downhill ski team (or snowboarders); a family of loggers named Russell, Thurman, Jay and Benson (the adopted black brother); and a sheepherder named Bret. Hilarity ensues.

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  17. Paul says:

    This is ridiculous and it seems like we have all lost the most important point. It isn’t only about the number of bodies present. It is about the demographics of the population. The issues is the fact that the population (even if slightly rising) is getting older. You need younger people to make it work. Areas with larger populations will be able to witstand the changes we have been discussing. They are more likely to have the critical mass that I describe above. One reason a younger person with an advanced degree will take a job in Boston over a job at say the Trudeau Institute in SL is because when it is time to move on or over there is another opportunity to go to. This is very hard to compete with. Just sitting back and hoping that the sky will not fall (as predicted, hopefully they are wrong) is a bad idea. Does that mean changing these places sure, but for the better. It seems like a no brainier. What is the harm. Total environmental collapse or whatever somebody suggested earlier is just not an issue. Especially in the Adirondacks, where you have about half of the 6 million acres described above protected in perpetuity and zoning laws as strict as anywhere. So there is nothing to worry about unless you are trying to run a green group in a place where most of your work is done. Some are just suggesting that we focus on the “human”side of the equation. The other side of the experiment has been a whopping success.

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  18. Paul says:

    Like I said above. I have no stake in the outcome bar maybe one. If things don’t work out I think that second home owners like myself will still probably benefit.

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  19. Paul says:

    Dave, you are reading way too much into my comments and even fabricating stuff based on them that makes no sense.

    “Your Conclusion: To get thriving towns again we need to keep or attract more people”

    How do you figure that this is my conclusion. Look at my comment recently. The point is not the NUMBER of people only. It is the demographic makeup of the population. That is the conclusion of the Cornell study that some here seem to have a problem with.

    My conclusion is simple. And I am not sure why you are having so much trouble with it. We need to attract some people with the right demographics or we could somehow herd them into a critical mass like someone else suggested (not likely). Now answer the question raised above what is the harm in doing the former?

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  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    There has been a trend that isn’t being discussed here, second home ownership vs. family tourism.

    30, 40, 50 years ago people came to the Adirondacks in the summer and stayed in hotels, motels, cabin camps and ate in diners and at ice cream stands. Today people come from New Jersey, and Connecticut and Long Island and build a private camp. They bring their food from home and don’t go into town. If they have a project to work on they bring the materials and hardware from home.

    30, 40, or 50 years ago families went on vacation in the Adirondacks for a week or a month at a time. People who worked in the Garment District in NYC had a month off and headed for the mountains (or elsewhere) for an extended stay. They stayed in housekeeping cottages and cooked food they bought at the local grocery. Those people’s jobs are gone. The trend in vacations is toward “long weekends”.

    Then came the shift in taxes. The federal and state government shifted more of the tax burden onto local governments which must increase property tax. Schools are mandated to provide more services to dwindling numbers of kids and the taxes go up more.

    Mom and Pop at their Motel on the Lake are getting older. They are finding it harder to pay their taxes so they sell out to someone who builds a private camp and is only there a few weekends a year. Mom and Pop move to Florida and stop buying all their groceries at the local Grand Union. They stop buying gas at the local gas station.

    There was a time when even small hamlets in the Park had year-round groceries, service stations that sold gas and did repairs and sold tires, hardware stores and lumber yards.

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  21. Kathy says:

    Has Upstate NY been able to maintain all these years, hidden away from it all, because it was able to be virtually unaffected by progress? Then almost suddenly, the advancement of technology finally caught up and awakened the sleeping giant? Young people are taking jobs left and right in the IT field. It’s a whole new world and the contrast is evident.

    I tend to agree with Walker on this since I think it will balance out. Not that I don’t think it’s worth having serious discussion about, but the situation may be much larger than any local planning board or government can fix.

    I am optimistic. I think that in time we will see (I think it’s happening already) many young families wanting to raise their children here, away from large school districts and high crime, working from home on their computers. They think outside the box and will have fresh ideas for our communities.

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  22. Dave says:

    “How do you figure that this is my conclusion”

    Paul, at that point in my comment I was primarily addressing the arguments that have been outlined in Brian’s comments/articles. Comments and articles which you have generally defended or been sympathetic to, but I wasn’t speaking directly to anything you’ve said (but can understand why you thought otherwise)

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  23. Paul says:

    “Paul, at that point in my comment I was primarily addressing the arguments that have been outlined in Brian’s comments/articles. ”

    Dave, thanks for the reply. I think this is part of where this discussion got derailed. In these stories and in his comments Brian is not making an “argument”. He is simply reporting the facts. He and others may have used some superlatives that folks like John W. don’t prefer but that doesn’t change the substance of the articles. The trend exists, it exits in many rural places, it may continue it may not. If it does it will have a greater impact on smaller towns like it already is having in some places.

    Knuck, you make some very good points. I think they apply to the Adirondacks (or more specifically parts of the Adirondacks) but not much for other parts of the NC. And like I said above as a second home owner I don’t see these trends as much to worry about personally. In fact these trends can be a benefit. I have read recently that the Adirondack Council is calling for reform of the APA act. Including tighter restrictions on what they call “back country” development and increasing shoreline restrictions including setbacks. If enacted that should help to further drive real estate prices up. If you already own shoreline property this is probably seen as welcome change.

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  24. mervel says:

    Well we have to get out in front of what is going to happen.

    Regardless of the future projections being correct or not we have a problem right now, we can’t finance our current public school systems they are on an unsustainable path. We are looking at two things happening, continued staff reductions and continued property tax increases, with no end in sight, no plan in sight except just keep doing the same thing over and over, and it does not work anymore.

    By putting off these decisions for the past 20 years and pretending it was normal to pay the highest property tax rates in the nation and then wondering why we have trouble attracting new business and jobs or why we need school superintendents for entire school systems smaller than an average class in an average elementary school, we have been forced into this corner.

    Brian is right about the need to plan for the future. I would disagree in that I don’t think we can or even should try to change that future we are going to shrink and get older, but we can plan for the change.

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  25. Paul says:

    Mervel, I agree with your earlier comment that we may not want the Florida model but the NC needs a guy like the current governor of Florida. He spends his day on the phone begging businesses to move to Florida and sometimes it works. But when you look at some of the comments here (“there is no trend, everybody has that trend, the trend is favorable, let’s wait and see if the trend changes”) I am not quite sure we have the kind of climate (no pun intended) that can win. And I use that term because it is a competition to lure businesses and young people to an area like this.

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  26. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Paul, driving up the value of shoreline property is fine for people who want to sell it but it hurts people who have owned it for generations and want to keep it but can’t afford the taxes.

    Do you take a mortgage interest deduction for your second home? If so then the government is paying you to drive up the cost of housing for people who just want one home in which to live and raise a family. I’m not saying it isn’t nice to have a second home if you can afford it, but it does have repercussions for other people. I know a guy in Old Forge who sold his parents home when they died. Snowmobilers bought it for a winter camp. Now he drives by it all summer and see the lawn un-mown. It could have been an affordable home for a local family.

    You are correct that my examples are more based on the Park than other areas.
    But there are similar things happening everywhere. People are willing to drive longer distances to save some money. Unfortunately that hurts the business just down the street that used to provide those goods at a slightly higher price because the local business doesn’t buy in high enough volume and has higher labor costs per item.

    I understand people trying to save a little money when times are tight but I don’t think they look at the true costs of their spending or the value they get from it. Sometimes it is worth paying 10% more to save an hour driving. Sometimes it is worth paying double for an item that will last 4 or 8 times as long.

    But how do you get people to think about the affects of their actions when we have TV to make us stupid?

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  27. Paul says:

    “Paul, driving up the value of shoreline property is fine for people who want to sell it but it hurts people who have owned it for generations and want to keep it but can’t afford the taxes.”

    I totally agree. This is a problem that is why I really don’t support any of the stuff that leads to that.

    I don’t have a mortgage on that property so I don’t take a deduction. Not even sure you could anyway. Maybe if you can I will put a lean on it. That is why we need tax reform.

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  28. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    There has been a shift in the force and I can now give a thumbs up to my own comments but not to Paul’s.
    Or am I in the wrong movie? Maybe it is the Matrix I am in. What! Wait!
    Who are those men at the door in suits and sunglasses? AHHHHHH.

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  29. Paul says:

    What in the world are you talking about? Happy hour?

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  30. mervel says:

    Paul, I think most people are in agreement in the US that NY is one of the worst places in the US to open a new business, that is not exactly new news. Sure NYC is great for international business and finance; but we are not NYC we are a high tax rural area that is ambivalent about business in general being a good thing.

    No one in upstate NY or downstate including our Gov, is not going to work the phones to try to convince business to move here. That is fine we have many good qualities. However I think it can be seen as slightly immoral when we have so many poor people who need work and an 11% unemployment rate, but then again we have a lot of trust fund people and wealthy people from down state who want to keep their playground as it is.

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  31. Dave says:

    “Dave, thanks for the reply. I think this is part of where this discussion got derailed. In these stories and in his comments Brian is not making an “argument”. He is simply reporting the facts. ”

    There is a very clear case/argument being made… and an opinion being expressed here. Both in the articles themselves, and in Brian’s comments on this blog.

    I don’t see how anyone could suggest otherwise. I don’t think even Brian would attempt to say that.

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  32. Paul says:

    Dave, I don’t think so. Just cut a paste one example from the stories or the IN BOX articles that are based on Brain’s opinion and not on a fact.

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  33. Brian Mann says:

    Hi folks –

    There is a side conversation here about whether or not Vanishing Youth is a series that ventures into “analysis” and “opinion,” or whether this is straight, factual journalism.

    This was, without qualification, the latter.

    One of the cool things that I get to do at NCPR is the kind of in-depth reporting that takes me well beyond he-said/she-said kind of superficial coverage.

    I can actually dig down and find out, as far as is reasonably possible, what the actual facts are. That’s what I’m doing.

    One of the realities of this conversation — and I do this all the time in my reporting — is that the perspective offered by John W. and Dave does not accord with the facts as I have found them during my reporting.

    This is not to say that at some point in the future opposing facts might not surface, or new experts emerge who see this very differently. But as things stand, I can’t find anyone — certainly no one with any expertise in studying demographics, population trends, or rural policy — who sees this the way John W. does.

    In this conversation, I have asked John W. several times to offer evidence that supports his position. When he does so, I will look at it with an open mind and great interest.

    If and when he offers a fact-based critique of Cornell’s projections, for example, I will look at his data immediately. If and when he offers a fact-driven explanation as to why the respected rural policy experts who have looked at the population trends in our region are universally wrong, I will be listening.

    The truth is, that kind of counter-narrative would be a GREAT story. Dashing conventional wisdoms, when appropriate, is one of the things journalists should always be prepared to do.

    But in all my reporting, all my digging through the numbers, all my interviews — I just haven’t found the facts that would justify John W’s opinion.

    And let me say firmly that linking to an analysis done by his own group of bloggers doesn’t qualify as sufficient. Good reporting isn’t about quoting one’s own fellow-travelers.

    It’s about searching as diligently and thoroughly as possible for an accurate understanding of the situation that exists. Which is what I’m doing.

    For my series, I have already interviewed a wide array of experts — and I will be doing far more as the series continues.

    If my sources offer different facts or expert analysis that contradict the widely accepted population trend-lines in the North Country, I will be the first to report them.

    Let me speak finally to one area where I do have a bias, which I will acknowledge openly. I do care about North Country and Adirondack small towns.

    I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea of allowing them to atrophy or die without at least a thorough conversation and an awareness of what that means — and perhaps an exploration of what the alternatives might be.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  34. mervel says:

    I think part of the conversation however should include the the advantages to the region of the death of these small communities.

    A case can be made that it would strengthen the larger communities in the area and the area in general may become fiscally more sound and more competitive. In addition it would seem to have environmental advantages to have communities in the Park be more concentrated rather than spread out.

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  35. Chris LaRose says:

    ” that era is gone. It existed because of a different national culture…”

    Yes since 1973 vis-a-vis Roe v Wade, we have become a Culture of Death. Nationally, we’ve lost 55 million souls by abortion. You reap what you sow.

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  36. mervel says:

    See, over 50 comments and it always ends up with abortion.

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  37. Walker says:

    I thought it was supposed to be Nazis that it got around to.

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  38. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It just did.

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