Saturday, January 9, 2016

Commentary: Airports Are Key To The Adirondack Economy

Adirondack Regional AirportIt 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

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

13 Responses

  1. George L. says:

    Pete –

    Are you suggesting expanding the airport at Lake Clear?

    Subsidizing direct flights to Albany, NYC, etc?

    I am trying to imagine what kind of flying improvement would impact someone who lives in Keene.

    Personally, I would reconnect the rail line from Tupper Lake to Montreal, and/or Ottawa.

    • Lorraine Duvall says:

      Better connections from the Plattsburgh airport would help Keene, and all those in the Northeastern Adirondacks.

  2. rc says:

    reliable high-speed internet. Period.

  3. Gene Wang says:

    All types of public transportation can be part of connecting the communities to other metro areas. The major issue for me appears to be cost. If cost can be reasonable and sustainable than it can work.

  4. Bob Meyer says:

    what you write has merit, but it is also problematic.
    Lk. Clear is not exactly centrally located in the Park. Does this mean build other airports for, say Old Forge, Speculator? How would that impact the adjacent wild areas? There is also the issue of increased carbon output of airplanes?
    Just saying it’s all part of the balancing act [something you know a lot about, pun intended] that constitutes “smart” growth.
    Food for thought.
    Keep ’em coming. Happy 2016 and congrats on moving to the Park!

    • Pete Nelson says:


      Good questions. Myself, I see better access to airports and a greater variety of cheaper flights as a key, not building more airports or making significant increases in the size and services of any that exist within the blue line today. Neither of those options are likely realistic or desirable.

      However, there are other things to do. For example, Investment in two airports could make a big difference: Plattsburgh, which is already expanding gates and services, and Griffiss, which has a new terminal and facilities to support domestic and international travel. If I were were with CAP-21 or another economic development group focusing on the West-Central or Southern Adirondacks I’d be interested in a conversation with Oneida County, which is interested in establishing passenger service at Griffiss. Between Plattsburgh and Griffiss the vast majority of the park would have a much more convenient option than Albany or Syracuse.

      As to better access, stay tuned: a column on better access and transportation hubs is coming, one that will suggest that technology has reached a point where we could launch a reasonable park-wide project. Imagine a EV (electric car) network with shared vehicles and hubs that would make access to airports much easier. Two years ago that would have been wishful speculation, years away. As of the last two months, it’s next year if we wanted it. And in contrast to other initiatives in the park, it’s potentially more affordable. More soon…

      Finally, climate change and air travel is a subject complex enough to confuse you for the rest of the week. But suffice it to say that the single businessperson wanting to travel to the Midwest has a considerably lower carbon footprint if she travels via green transportation to the airport and then flies versus driving an internal combustion car all the way. The numbers are a lot less certain for family trips to see grandma.

      Bob, you keep ’em coming too!


  5. Pat says:

    In central New York, we have only Syracuse Hancock Airport. Although there are tiny airports in communities such as Rome (Griffiss Business and Technology Park), Cooperstown and Hamilton for private and hobby pilots, I understand that we can never expect to get regular passenger or commercial service. Rep. Richard Hanna (who will retire at the end of 2016) sits on the Transportation Committee in Congress and has said we will never get passenger service here because: No. 1, too close to Syracuse, and No. 2, the costs are not justified for the airlines. Oneida County (Utica-Oriskany) used to have passenger service from the 1960s to the 1980s with LOCAL airlines (Empire, Piedmont, USAir, etc). Thanks to airline mergers, though, passenger service disappeared.
    So while I agree with the research, I don’t see airport expansion on the horizon.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      I’m hearing a different story with Griffiss. Nothing planned, perhaps not likely (at least now). But it’s being talked about again.

  6. Larry Roth says:

    This is the end result of airline deregulation some years back. We got cheap fares (on some routes) but we also lost service to a lot of communities once airlines were free to follow the market and the public interest was cast by the wayside.

    Airlines are not coming into the Adirondacks any time soon given the current regulatory climate and the size of the market. If your business needs demand that kind of service, the choices are obvious: get your own plane or move elsewhere. Either that or be prepared to spend a lot of time driving.

    This is why keeping the rail line into Lake Placid intact is not a small matter – the region needs alternative transportation options, and a direct connection to Amtrak at Utica is not something to preemptively abandon. It might not be as fast as driving to an airport, but a lot of people are finding it possible to get work done while riding on a train.

  7. Curt Austin says:

    It seems that we will soon be owning (or renting) self-driving cars. It’s a bigger change than we think. It will be disruptive in many ways; for example, it will give us all some of the benefits of airport limousine service.

    We may need to hold back on making some decisions about existing services.

    • Pete Nelson says:

      Are you writing my next column? Did you take a sneak peak? You’re spot on, as if often the case.


  8. AG says:

    “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”

    But it’s not… Too many roads and dwellings. It’s also lacking the large animals that you find out west.
    No bison – wolves – cougars – big horn sheep – elk – mountain goats – grizzly bears.
    Now grizzlies I don’t believe lived in upstate NY – but I’m not sure about big horned sheep or mountain goats. Bison – elk – wolves – cougars certainly did. They are no longer living there. Only moose are back. So – no it’s not the same was the “wild west”. If those animals were there – then it would be more like it. I would say Caribou as well – but apart from the very northern parts of Canada – they are having trouble overall.

  9. Big Burly says:

    Hello Pete,

    I am late catching up to your usual thought provoking piece.

    A couple of thoughts, one that another commenter noted concerning hi-speed, big pipe broadband internet availability ubiquitous to every community within the blue line will go a long way to improving how entrepreneurs could make a big difference in economic development — even job creation.

    The other that we have corresponded on in the past is a simpler, gentler to the carbon footprint, improvement to the transportation system in the Adirondacks — upgrade the existing rail infrastructure in the Travel Corridor all the way to Lake Placid.

    It makes little sense for our Governor to tout the tourism and economic development potential of the Adirondack North Country if getting here is dependent on the constraints of the existing highway network. That network, while well maintained given the extremes of weather, is not conducive to easy access or egress, in any direction. Expanding the highway travel corridors, another alternative to rail or air travel upgrades, seems to me to be the least likely, and certainly least desirable opportunity.

    As always, you make all of us think with your missives. Best

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