Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Paradise Lost

Upstate: Beautiful Country,

But Short of Jobs and People

There is a cloud hanging over Upstate New York.

Many of the 62 counties which comprise the state are an economic wasteland. The scenery is attractive, but there is not enough business activity to sustain city and county budgets, or to provide jobs for the remaining population.

Last Thursday we attended a forum on the problems of Upstate sponsored by a new group, the New York Policy Forum. Its leaders are John Giardino, a Buffalo-born businessman, and Jonathan Cohen, a Koch administration alumnus who is now a writer. Cohen is also a Buffalo native, as was the late Tim Russert of Meet the Press, and the Crotty family, which has produced distinguished lawyers and judges.

Almost all the above mentioned have left Buffalo, a city which was once the 15th largest in population in the United States and is now 70th, with the 2010 census showing 261,310 residents. For purposes of historical comparison, the 1950 census reported 580,132 Buffalonians. In the last sixty years, the population has declined by 55%; the last ten years showed a 10.7% drop. The Buffalo diaspora has shown educated and middle-class residents departing in droves, with the remaining population consisting of many state-subsidized people who are struck in a region with diminishing economic opportunities and worsening social problems.

At the same time, the city of Buffalo is supporting an infrastructure built at a time when the population was twice what it is today. When you consider the city's responsibility for retirees' pensions and health benefits, disaster looms ahead. Upstate New York is now substantially subsidized by taxes collected downstate, in areas which have financial problems of their own.

What brought this problem to my attention so vividly was a weekend trip to Oakville, Ontario for a family wedding. My brother Ken's son, an actor, was married Sunday to an actress. We drove through Upstate New York Friday, and returned Monday. The trip was not confined to the Thruway; we used some other state roads and drove through a few Upstate towns.

Many of the places we saw were almost deserted. Stores and motels had "For Rent" and "For Sale" signs. Factory and commercial space was readily available. The streets were clean, the weather was moderate, the views of the Finger Lakes were splendid. However, economic activity seemed minimal.

We stopped for lunch in a delicatessen in Mt. Morris, a town which is unusually attractive. The food was very good, but my wife Peggy and I were the only customers. Just after leaving on our eastward journey, we encountered what appeared to be the area's principal industry: incarceration.

Rolls and rolls of razor wire, shining in the bright sunlight, provided a well-defined boundary for a state penitentiary. In fact, there were two correctional facilities, across Route 36 from each other. One was named Groveland, and since there were no orange groves in the vicinity, I wondered if it had been named for Grover Cleveland, since he was the second New York State Governor to be elected President. (The first was Martin Van Buren; the third and fourth, the two Roosevelts. Is there a fifth in the wings?)

For years, we have looked to closing upstate prisons to reduce the state budget and to keep prisoners closer to their homes in the city. It makes sense from an economic and a criminological viewpoint. But what then are the thousands of prison employees going to do? Their jobs keep them in the middle class, and there are few if any other opportunities for them anywhere near their homes and families.

Different places serve different populations. Were we upset that in the early 20th century, all the resorts were in the Catskills? That period is over, and casinos are now looked to as generators of economic activity. Many people are employed in the process of transferring money through gambling from one party to another. I do not know how much value is created in this zero-sum game. In the stock market, company capitalizations may rise beyond the company's real value, but there is an opportunity for economic expansion.

Looking at the countryside gave us mixed feelings. The land is beautiful, although many large fields have no crops of any kind growing in them. There are numerous cottage wineries in central New York State, inviting passersby for tours or tastes. The lakes seemed too cold for swimming, at least in early June.

There is no war damage here; no scorched earth or scarred fields. A few abandoned and derelict barns, older farmhouses surrounded by equally aged trees, scattered drainage pools, gas stations which mostly include stores. The landscape was dotted by neat signs of human habitation, there just weren't many human beings around.

One foolish thing the state does, in the name of economic development, is build convention centers for smaller towns that are not needed. They do, however, provide temporary construction jobs for workers and contractors. They also provide opportunities for groundbreakings, ribbon cuttings, and whatever intermediate celebrations can be squeezed out of a capital project. They also lead to naming opportunities, both for the main facility and for parts thereof. Former State Senator Joseph A. Bruno held the record in this regard.

Our conclusion is that we live on a splendid planet (at least that part of it in upstate New York). It is just too bad that the economy is not organized in such a way that the descendants of pioneers and farmers cannot support themselves by the wealth of the land, while too many others who have gone to live in the cities have found the hazards of addiction, crime, family breakdown and unemployment have made their situation even more difficult.

To simplify our observations: "It's really pretty nice up here. Why can't people earn a living?" We know that young people leave the region because there are so few jobs available to them. Each departure further weakens the economy. High taxes are part of the problem, but the cheap land available in other states combined with less expensive utilities and a more salubrious climate give natural advantages to warmer places, who in their turn have to compete with China's low costs for wages and benefits.

We enjoyed the clean air and clean water upstate, and the prices are lower than New York City's. It just seems somehow sad that the beautiful country we visited and the friendly people we met could not be tied into a functioning economy that would support them where they want to live.

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