June 20, 2006

Unsettling Upstate - but not here

The Sunday New York Times had an editorial about the 'unsettling' of upstate New York (registration required):

During the last decade the population of upstate New York grew more slowly than that of any state except North Dakota and West Virginia: 1.1 percent. What that number hides is something even more unsettling, a growing absence of young adults who have found no compelling reason to remain upstate....

Like so many patterns of population movement, what looks like a matter of personal choice is at least partly a response to basic economic incentives — or the lack of them. Young people living upstate seem to have many more choices available to them than their grandparents did. But nearly all those choices involve some other place. What is missing is the one fundamental possibility: to stay home and build a good life where you were raised.

I agree with them about the value of staying where you were raised, though I'm content forty miles from Corning. They're correct that economics is a key part of why people go elsewhere. If you can't get a job, or can get a better job somewhere is, that makes it more tempting to go elsewhere. And yet...

We live in a key exception to prognostications about upstate's doom. Dryden, and Tompkins County generally, is growing. There's lots of new construction, and if housing prices are any sign, there should probably be even more new construction. The Times noted this county as an exception to the departure of 18-34 year-olds last week.

I think the 'why' of what's going on here is more than the economy. We have universities and colleges, sure, but so do lots and lots of places in upstate New York. We definitely enjoy a more stable economy than surrounding areas, without Corning's dependence on Corning, Inc. or Binghamton's recent defense contracting boom, but I can't say the economy overall is growing drastically here. It's hard to give a simple reason that Tompkins County is a very attractive place to a lot of people, making perhaps too many of the "Top 10 Places to Do X..." lists.

At the same time, I get a strong sense from conversations here that a lot of people do leave Tompkins County - we're just enjoying more arrivals than departures. I'm not sure there's a good way to figure out what the patterns are.

So what are we doing right? And wrong?

Posted by simon at June 20, 2006 7:39 PM in ,
Note on photos


Greg said:

I stumbled across your blog recently and felt compelled to reply. I am a native Upstate New Yorker who fled to Raleigh, NC ten years ago to escape high taxes and a stagnant economy. Sure, Central NY can be a nice place, but the number of well-paying jobs is slim. Tompkins County has always had a young transient population, which helps to depress wages. According to the Census Bureau, Tompkins County grew by 2.6% between 1990 – 2000. Yes, that’s growth, but I’ll bet births alone could account for that.

If you want your economy to grow and you want to attract new and expanding companies, you must provide them an environment that helps them lower their cost of doing business. You also need a skilled, educated workforce – you’ve got that, so why not recruit a biotech or pharmaceutical company? Sadly, the cost of doing business would probably keep them away.

Bottom line: If you want people to stay there has to be jobs. And to create quality jobs you need a business-friendly climate. At the risk of inflaming your readers, I'll suggest that won't happen—especially considering Tompkins County’s political climate.

Hrm... I'm a native Upstate New Yorker who lived in Greensboro, North Carolina for a year and was very very happy to come back here.

A few points:

* Tompkins County's growth has accelerated since the 2000 census you cite. It grew .7% in 2004 alone, and watching the pace of real estate and construction, I suspect it's moving faster than that now.

* The number of companies spinning off Cornell and staying around here already seems to have increased over the last few years - it certainly seems stronger than it did in 1992-3, when I previously lived here.

* Tompkins County's 'political climate' doesn't seem to be a problem for its growth, especially relative to the surrounding and generally more conservative counties. My personal suspicion is that the area attracts people looking for that kind of political climate. (People such as yourself, with less fondness for it, may well find it a reason to move south, though if you're in Raleigh, you're not exactly in the conservative part of NC.)

I'd love to see figures on how many people moved to Tompkins County from other parts of upstate, actually, and vice-versa. I'm not sure that data exists. I know a fair number of those people, though.

Greg said:

I’m not sure how you’re inferring that I am not fond of Tompkins County’s political climate, but I will take the bait.

An argument can be made that the county is not known for encouraging growth. I suspect most Ithacans really like the vibe and would prefer it never change. Growth creates change.

Yes, technology transfer from university research is an excellent means of economic development, but I’ll suggest Cornell could do more to keep the spin-offs in the county. Research Triangle Park was created in the 1950s! I don’t recall such a concerted effort in Ithaca during my 30 years in Tompkins and Cortland counties.

It all depends on a person’s priorities. I have no great need to live near my hometown; a good job is more important to me and in my line of work Central NY offers very limited opportunities.

"An argument can be made that the county is not known for encouraging growth. I suspect most Ithacans really like the vibe and would prefer it never change. Growth creates change."

I think my argument is actually the reverse - the 'vibe' here is what's attracting people here and creating the growth. I suspect that's what differentiates Tompkins County from the rest of upstate.

"Cornell could do more to keep the spin-offs in the county. Research Triangle Park was created in the 1950s!"

I'd love to see Cornell do more to encourage businesses to stay. Businesses do still form here and leave. My understanding - anecdotally - is that businesses are staying more often for longer periods of time than they used to, for whatever reason.

RTP is kind of a special case, created by design in an area that hadn't yet seen development but had access to transportation infrastructure, multiple universities, and densely settled surrounding areas.

Whatever RTP's virtues - and I have mixed feelings about them - I don't think the local situation resembles Raleigh-Durham circa 1950 - or ever really has. Orange County politics do sound a bit like Tompkins County politics, though.