Population drop worsens problems in Adirondacks
Study sites aging residents, youth migration as key issues to address
ADIRONDACKS The village of Keeseville on the northern edge of the Adirondack Mountains will dissolve later this year.
Residents voted last year to abolish the historic village along the Ausable River, which long ago lost the small factories that were once its lifeblood. Mayor Dale B. Holderman said economic conditions led to dissatisfaction with village government and acknowledged the village 15 miles south of Plattsburgh has “stagnated.”
The population was 1,815 in 2010, down 35 people from 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which unofficially estimates the population has now fallen below 1,800.
“You see a whole lot of older residents here. The young generation does move away. There’s no jobs here,” said Holderman, who owns a bar and laundromat in the village.
The decision leaves the towns of Chesterfield and Ausable to take over village functions, a process Chesterfield town Supervisor Gerald Morrow said started years ago, when the village stopped doing property assessments and animal control.
“People got tired of paying taxes for no services,” he said last week.
The populations of small communities like Keeseville across the Adirondack Park is dropping and remaining residents aging, exacerbating problems such as how to pay for local government services. The trend is also affecting schools and making it harder for communities to fill the need for volunteers to fight fires and drive ambulances.
Of the two counties entirely inside the Adirondack Park, the Census Bureau estimates Essex County’s population dropped from 39,372 to 38,762 between 2010 and 2013, while Hamilton County declined from 4,836 to 4,773. A new report, the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment 2014, has found the downward population trend could continue for years to come.
The Adirondack Park has slightly fewer than 130,000 year-round residents today. The downward trend could reduce that to fewer than 116,000 people by 2030, the privately funded study found.
But the decline isn’t inevitable, some local officials — even some who helped advise the study — believe. They say the future could brighten thanks to work already being done by the state's economic development program.
“I do believe that if you look again in five years, things will look better,” said Chester town Supervisor Fred Monroe, executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board and a member of the study’s steering committee.
Monroe said the report intentionally doesn’t draw conclusions as to why the demographic changes are occurring, because it is intended to promote discussion.
Speaking for himself, Monroe said continued state land acquisitions have taken forest land out of wood production, costing jobs and the burden of state mandates raises the tax bills for the remaining private landowners, including forestry companies.
Most of the Adirondack region’s paper mills and mines have closed, he noted, eliminating what were once year-round jobs.
“What it’s being replaced with is tourism. The governor is doing a great job of promoting tourism, but one of the problems with tourism is it’s seasonal, and you need more year-round jobs,” Monroe said.
The assessment report paints a dire picture of what the future could hold, based on the current trends of departure of the young and the aging of the remaining population. The report found the median age of park residents will be above 50 by 2030, with more than one-third of all residents over 60.
“As Adirondack communities age and have a greater need for emergency services, Adirondack volunteer fire departments and rescue squads have fewer able-bodied volunteers available to handle to increasing numbers of emergency calls,” concluded the report, which was prepared by The LA Group of Saratoga Springs with demographic analysis from Cornell University.
The researchers acknowledge declining and aging populations in rural areas are a national phenomena, but said what’s happening appears more extreme in the Adirondacks.
The Adirondack Park encompasses about 5.9 million acres across all or parts of 12 counties. It includes the northern parts of Saratoga and Fulton counties.
The park is a blend of public and private lands, and villages and small hamlets are separated by sometimes a dozen miles of state-owned forests. About 58 percent of the land in the park is state-owned or under easement that prevents its development.
Even at 130,000 year-round residents, the park is among the most lightly populated places in the eastern United States. Hamilton County — which doesn't have a single traffic light — has the smallest population of any county in New York state.
Hamilton County Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Farber, R-Morehouse, said the trends identified by the report are worth noting, but he believes the projections are too pessimistic. He believes recent state investments, such as $5.5 million to help in bringing broadband Internet service to the remote and rural county, will make a big difference in how attractive the area is for the young.
Having broadband Internet service will allow some people to work remotely from scenic lakeside or mountain-view locations, he said — an attractive alternative in his eyes to commuting from suburbs to city offices.
Farber also believes the park’s private woodlands give it the base to develop a wood pellet fuel industry that would provide the kinds of year-round jobs tourism generally doesn’t.
“Those kinds of things won’t show up immediately in the [population] figures, but in the long-term will help,” Farber said.
One sector that has been especially hurt by the declining number of young families is the public schools.
The assessment report found every school district in the Adirondacks has experienced declining enrollment in the last decade, with two exceptions: Lake Pleasant gained students when the neighboring Piseco school district dissolved, and Newcomb has successfully attracted international students to its district just south of the High Peaks, increasing its total enrollment to more than 100 students.
“It’s inevitable that other schools will close. That’s a real problem, because the distances are so long in the Adirondacks,” Monroe said.
Even communities like Lake Placid and Saranac Lake — among the largest and most vibrant within the park — saw enrollment declines of more than 20 percent between 2003 and 2013, the assessment report found.