It has often been said by various Park planners that the availability of convenient air travel from the Adirondack region is an important piece of the North Country’s economic puzzle. But what has seemed colloquially obvious now has interesting research to back it up. If we can draw any parallels to the same issue out West, we can say with more certainty that convenient air travel is in fact an essential piece.
The Adirondack Region offers a great deal to the remote worker: world-class natural beauty, unsurpassed recreational opportunities, a pristine environment, a surprising level of cultural amenities, good restaurants and expanding broadband availability. I’ve even been pleased with shipping and postage times, considerably better than I had expected before I moved here. Indeed, for people who want to be able to live in the Park while participating in a global business world, the overall story is getting more persuasive. But transportation in, around and out of the Adirondacks is a real problem.
As it happens I am writing this commentary while on a plane bound for Seattle. My flight left out of Albany, which is a nearly two-hour drive from my home in Keene. As has consistently been the case, no other airport in the vicinity offered an affordable flight. Albany is hardly convenient for me (though more convenient than for those who reside deeper in the Park). I’m not complaining; I love living here and I’ll take the trade-off any day. But I recognize that if I were still involved with my previous business career, what is now merely an inconvenience would be a serious or maybe even impossible impediment.
My anecdotal experience is supported by new research from Headwaters Economics, a non-partisan economics think tank I have cited before. Headwaters Economics specializes in study of the economic impacts of federally-protected wilderness areas out west, through multiple lenses, with rigorous, peer-reviewed research. Their previous work has shown that western counties containing wilderness areas outperform other rural counties, and further that there is a causal relationship between the appeal of wilderness and economic benefit. This research may run counter to those Adirondackers who adhere to stale conventional wisdom that Forever Wild, the APA and environmental organizations are to blame for economic hard times, but it doesn’t surprise me. I’ve argued repeatedly that the Adirondack Park will thrive to the extent that it is recognized as a wild, majestic place on a par with western wilderness areas rather than being viewed as just another tourist destination lumped in with the Berkshires and the Catskills – as it often is.
This new research doesn’t fuel that debate as much as it draws a distinction between different kinds of rural counties, a distinction to which we should pay attention. What Headwaters found was that instead of usual two-way economic contrast between metropolitan counties which are growing more rapidly and rural counties which are growing less or shrinking, there is actually a tripartite distinction. In their paper “The Three Wests: A New County Typology Based on Transportation” in the Journal of Rural Studies, they describe three types of counties: Metro, Isolated, and Connected. The Isolated and Connected counties are both rural and otherwise share the challenges of changing national trends towards urban living. But the Connected counties actually performed more like Metro counties; further this difference in performance is primarily driven by a single distinguishing characteristic: good airport service to metro areas. To quote from their report summary:
“The Metro and Isolated counties are the most distinct. Metro areas are younger, growing faster, with higher earnings, less income volatility, and a more educated workforce. Isolated counties tend to have slower growth rates, a higher dependence on retirement income, and employment concentrated in agriculture and resource industries.
“Connected counties—in rural settings but with airports that provide access to larger markets in Metro areas—frequently outperform Isolated counties. These counties more closely resemble Metro counties, with higher education levels and more high-wage services jobs.”
In their discussion, Headwaters ties these findings to their previous research on the values of natural amenities like Wilderness areas (italic emphasis mine):
“…research has shown the value of natural amenities as an important economic asset that extends beyond tourism and recreation to attract and retain people and businesses.
“Such amenities by themselves, however, often are not a sufficient condition for economic development. This study and recent data show that access to larger markets via transportation infrastructure, in particular airports, also is important.
“Connected counties are more likely to benefit from nearby natural amenities and capture high income workers of the modern service economy.”
The details and data in the report make for a strong case. It certainly seems to tell us that the sweet spot that connects the draw of wilderness with the people who would seek it is good airport connectivity as much as it is broadband connectivity, which gets a lot more attention. In a political period where the State is offering hundreds of millions of dollars in regional economic aid it suggests that we should focus on projects that give us better air travel and better access to that travel.
I’m by no means the first to call for a priority focus on airports, but the research is worth sharing. This is information we can use to prioritize and goodness knows the Adirondack Park needs realistic priorities and focus if its economy is to fly higher.
Photo: Adirondack Regional Airport. Photo Courtesy Wikipedia