December 23, 2012

Another success for the North Country

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — Last year, New York State was offered a reminder that a massive swath of the state is contained in 12 rural counties between the Canadian border, the Great Lakes, Vermont and Albany. The vast North Country, a region often forgotten as we rebuild Buffalo, celebrate the Finger Lakes and love New York City, is perhaps the most economically diverse and vexing region in the state. It also appears to be the most visionary.

The state was reminded the North Country was on the map when it earned the distinction of creating the best economic plan in the state in 2011. The reward for the hard work of our Regional Economic Development Council, headed by Garry Douglas and Clarkson College President Tony Collins, was one of the largest grants for economic development ever offered a regional entity in this state.

One grand success right out of the box could be considered a fluke. Two must be a pattern.

This year, the council again received nearly $100 million in economic-development funds. On a per-capita basis, I don’t think any region has come close to our success.

Other regions have almost become accustomed to financial attention from Albany. We have spent billions trying to stem the decline of the Buffalo-Niagara region, with only a modicum of success. Our state did so not because it stood an excellent chance of success. Rather, given the historic population base, Albany probably considered it political suicide to do otherwise.

And, there are always the darlings of the state, from the Big Apple to the beautiful vineyards of the Finger Lakes. Every region is warmer than ours, and other regions have a greater proportion of arable cropland, natural gas, abundant wind power, and access to other large states like Ohio, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.

Other regions have higher population densities and don’t have large shares of land protected by the state.

What other regions do not have is our access to Canada, our strategic location between large trading partners, and an appreciation by residents of the natural beauty that keeps us here and, with some vision, others coming.

Of course, like most areas, this region has the dubious benefit of Albany paternalism with our share of government jobs, social services and entitlement spending. This spending helps New York rural areas stem the slow bleed of jobs and population elsewhere, but not in a sustainable way. No region will sustain itself if it cannot produce something other regions want, and provide something in return to those willing to come and help produce it.

There are areas that are so united under a common vision or brand that they successfully attract a like-minded cadre of community-oriented citizens. Vermont comes to mind.

However, Vermont is much more homogeneous than we are. Their population is predominantly centered on Burlington, their shared heritage are the Green Mountains, and they share a tradition of self-governance and relatively weak state government. Vermonters are united as Vermonters.

North Country residents are not so united. Two poles, Plattsburgh and Watertown, share little but a congressman. Many developments possible in either of those towns are simply not permitted, and perhaps not even desired, in the vast Adirondack Park. The Northern Tier counties often look farther north for economic development, while those on the southern edge look farther south. While Vermont enjoys an almost magnetic attraction, we look outside more than we look inward.

And yet, almost miraculously, representatives from across the region came together and articulated a sustainable and balanced vision for this disparate region that was successful well beyond its size and political clout. Then, the North Country Regional Economic Development Council did it again.

In return, our communities receive an investment in economic infrastructure that may just create the jobs and the infrastructure to keep our children here and attract the thousands of families by 2040 that we must bring to maintain our quality of life and sustain our tax burden.

The best way to view investment in our economic future is the fostering of an infant industry. We should not simply put good money after bad just to temporarily stem the flood of rural flight. Rather, we should plant the seeds for a prosperous private sector, mostly on the backs of small- and medium-sized business.

At the same time, we must build those things that may have played no role in attracting us, but will play a role in attracting our children. A first-rate historic Strand Theater, a river walk, a celebration of Adirondack and Lake Champlain history, and a recognition of our region from tourist eyes are the types of investment that may be icing on the cake.

Yes, our council once again created the well-rounded and inclusive plan that beat out all others. And it may have made the difference for our economic future.

Colin Read contributes to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh.