Nearly 80 attendees, representing 23 communities and 13 counties, gathered at the historic Stone Mill in downtown Keeseville for the Adirondack North Country Association’s Annual Meeting “Unpacking the Secrets of Successful Communities.”
Recent national analyses and media coverage have reported that things are not so good in rural communities across the nation. According to a May 2016 Washington Post article by Jim Tankersley, “rural areas have seen their business formation fall off a cliff.” The article says “experts warn that the trends could be self-perpetuating and endanger the very life of rural economies in the years to come.” “Not so fast,” was the underlying theme of ANCA’s meeting.
Seventy percent of the nearly 350 people who responded to ANCA’s survey on successful communities said that their community was better in the past five years or that they were too new to comment. ANCA brought in experts from six communities across Northern New York that are clearly bucking the negative trends by growing, attracting new business start-ups, and younger generations. The meeting focused on how they are doing this and how other communities can learn from their successes.
The event kicked off with opening remarks from ANCA Board President Jim Sonneborn, who emphasized ANCA’s growth as an organization over the last year. ANCA started the year with nine staff members and now employs 17 people in the sectors of regional advocacy, local economies, and clean energy. Sonneborn also noted a number of projects ANCA has accomplished during the past year in the 14-county region it serves. Projects include its expansion of Farm to School programs, its renewable energy programs, meetings and events that support local artisans, and ANCA’s Bike the Barns event which promoted local agriculture and bicycle tourism in the region.
Plattsburgh and Glens Falls were represented at the meeting. Both communities are recent winners of the Governor’s new Downtown Revitalization $10M awards. Clayton, Wilmington and Saranac Lake leadership shared the ways that planning, focus on main streets, good infrastructure, community assets, culture and arts, entrepreneur support, and persistence were elements of success.
A discussion that received much attention was what ANCA Executive Director Kate Fish describes as the “wildcard” topic. Are there economic and cultural benefits from attracting refugees to North Country communities? Mayor Chris Louras of Rutland, VT thinks so, and described what Rutland is doing this year to resettle 100 Syrian refugees.
Attorney Anas Saleh of Bousquet Holstein & Volunteer Lawyers Project of Onondaga County, Inc. in Syracuse discussed his positive experiences working with community partners that resettle refugees into businesses and communities in Central New York and Utica. He emphasized the need to hear all points of views, even those concerned about the process. “This is what we need,” said Saleh, whose parents are of Palestinian descent. “We need to have this kind of conversation.”
Saleh said this is a difficult topic for many rural communities and stressed the importance of an honest and open conversation about this issue. “There is the economic piece [regarding potential benefits of refugee resettlement],” he said, “but there is a humanitarian piece as well. Are we going to take this on?” In his opening remarks, he also noted the difficulties faced abroad by immigrants, and that while “tomorrow is never promised, in America there is always promise in tomorrow.”
According to event organizers, the end goal of the meeting is to develop a toolkit, based on real-life successes and best practices, to guide North Country communities in creating their own success stories. ANCA plans to involve many of the meeting participants in a draft of this toolkit and release it in 2017.
Photos: ANCA Board of Directors President Jim Sonneborn addresses about 80 attendees of the nonprofit’s Annual Meeting at the Stone Mill, and Anas Saleh leads a breakout discussion about refugee resettlement as ANCA staff member Jake Vennie-Vollrath listens in, courtesy ANCA.
While I didn’t attend the conference, as someone who grew up in one small town and lives in another today, I can guess at some of the things that are hurting smaller communities.
The increasing consolidation of corporations into bigger and bigger entities through mergers and acquisitions is hurting smaller communities. Big Box stores drive local merchants under; family businesses have to struggle to compete against companies that can lose money locally to kill off their competition and acquire a local monopoly.
Current interpretations of ant-trust laws allow this as long as no one can show increased consumer prices. What’s not considered is the effect on local wages or that multi-state corporations suck money out of communities back to corporate headquarters and stockholders, instead of being recycled into the local economy. They also often demand tax breaks and subsidies not available to local businesses as the price of ‘creating’ jobs – when often what they’re really doing is cannibalizing the existing job base.
A similar effect happens with manufacturing businesses. A firm that may have been around for generations with an established market gets acquired by another firm. The bean counters sooner or later decide it makes sense to consolidate operations elsewhere to save money – by eliminating jobs and ‘redundancies’. Another factory sits empty when the dust settles.
Agriculture has been on a trend for decades where the family farm is increasingly non-viable if it falls below a certain size. The cost of machinery, seed, chemicals, labor – it’s being driven to allow only industrial scale operations to survive, and then only on very thin margins. There’s also the problem of recruitment – farm children are increasingly going elsewhere. Almost any kind of work is less demanding, less risky, and more rewarding. Add to that the pressure of farm land becoming more valuable as real estate than as a farm, and the end result is aging farmers selling off the land to developers to fund their retirement.
These are large trends; to fight back small communities must also learn to think large scale. It makes no sense to fight big box stores if they locate two miles away in the next town. Towns need to work with each other rather than competing against each other.
Communities must also make an effort to leverage their unique assets, things like their heritage including the built environment. This is a problem because too often locals have no respect for what they’ve known all their lives. Where outsiders see potential, all too often locals see just a bunch of old buildings. Call it the Joni Mitchell syndrome – you don’t know what you had till it’s gone.
My home town is largely gone through an act of misguided ‘rejuvenation’ back in the 1960s. Under the flag of “urban renewal” the central business district of classic brick multi-story buildings from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was largely demolished and replaced with the latest craze of the time – a shopping mall with lots of parking. It failed. They could never attract any big anchor stores, most of the earlier small businesses that had been downtown cashed out and disappeared with settlement money, and larger businesses lost their local visibility in an anonymous mall setting.
Things have only begun to turn around a bit because local government moved into the mall and added some recognizable architecture to signal there was something there. Meanwhile, just outside city limits the surrounding town now boasts of a number of big box stores that contribute nothing to the city’s tax base, draw business away from downtown, and send the money out of state.
I can see a similar process playing out in the tri-lakes with a small group determined to drive the historic railroad out of the region. Just as my town bought into the vision of a shiny new mall as the answer to their problems, the rail trail is being sold as the magic elixir that will bring visitors to the region while making local life better.
Locals have no need to ride a tourist railroad more than once, so too many place no value on it. That the rails bring in thousands of visitors doesn’t matter to them, unless they see a personal benefit. Most of them are from long past the time when the railroad was a major transportation link; they have no conception of what restoration of full service would make possible. Anyone could have come up with the idea of rail bikes. It took outsiders to see the potential and seize on it – which some regard as unforgivable.
Lake Placid seems to be of the opinion that the railroad doesn’t matter to them because of their status as the site of two winter Olympics. But, that’s a status fading into the past. A rail link to the nation’s national rail passenger system would ensure a steady stream of visitors. Further, it would advantage every community on the line all the way down to Utica. Balkanizing the region into little enclaves is a bad idea for the long term as well as the immediate future.
The real estate interests and developers see a pay off by eliminating the rails, but it’s only going to be a short term gain. Once they’ve cashed in, what next? The snowmobile partisans see nothing beyond adding a few more miles to their hundreds of miles of trails. Their numbers are in decline, the climate is against them, but still they persist.
As for the wilderness advocates, how many people think they’re interested in aiding and abetting a human presence in the region other than on a temporary basis?
The rail trail is not much more than a nice shiny object to dangle before locals who have no use for the rails. Promising it will be an engine of economic development is stretch, to put it politely.
1) It will have no payroll.
2) It will have no purchasing budget.
3) It will have no advertising budget.
4) It will have no direct source of revenue to support it.
5) It can never be anything more than a trail.
6) it will be just one more trail among many – nothing all that special or unique about it. 7) It will irretrievably erase a direct connection to the region’s history.
8) There’s no way it can replace the current economic activity being generated by the rails – or the potential future activity if they were fully redeveloped with a real commitment by the state instead of a demi-buttocked compromise.
One of the principles of sustainable development is that you never discard anything that is in use, can be restored to use for a reasonable investment, or can be adapted to new uses. It would be interesting to see if ANCA considered the rail corridor in its discussions.
Thank you Larry Roth. Insightful, thought provoking contribution.
Lake Placid’s attractions are its Olympic history and its many outdoor opportunities. A year-round recreation trail that can be used by Olympic training athletes, locals, and visitors alike fits more with their image than a historic train ride. LP has had a railroad for over a century and the ASR for years and if they feel they would be better served with a recreation trail, I would believe them. Perhaps LP has more vision than the railroad folks give them credit for. After all, they are among the most stable and thriving economies in the Park. They didn’t get there by bad planning.
No, they got there with millions on millions sunk into Olympic facilities year after year. It’s their equivalent of the big factory that drives the local economy. But the factory is aging and having a harder time in a competitive market.