One of the longer-standing issues in this area of New York state is the demographic shift that’s been happening over the past thirty years. The absolute population numbers have been declining, and the remaining population is trending older. My county is a good example, with median age of 53, and our school population, if put into one district, would still be considered a small school district. Those figures, along with some other factors, have led to a serious problem for the local economy.
Tourism is the major driver for the economy here, and because of that, a lot of the employment in the Adirondacks revolves around seasonal jobs. In winter, it means servicing the winter sports business, and in summer, it revolves around outdoor activities. As we enter the summer season, businesses are trying to hire staffs. Stores, campgrounds, resorts, museums, and theme parks are all trying to hire people. Their problem? They’re not getting enough people, and from various discussions I’ve had, it doesn’t look like they’re going to.
What I remember from my teen years was that like today, there were always a lot of seasonal jobs in the area, but that there was competition for them. If you were from outside the area and got one of them, there were places you could stay, or even on-site, that were affordable (read: cheap) to rent. Schools in the area, although small schools, were graduating class sizes in the 30’s. So there was a fairly sizable population of local college students (and their college friends) or recent high school graduates who were looking for summer jobs.
When I moved back here in the mid-2000’s, things had changed, somewhat. A number of the summer employers had disappeared. Affordable housing seasonal or otherwise, was virtually non-existent. The local school districts were graduating classes less than half the size of my youth. There were still plenty of seasonal jobs available, and if there weren’t enough local people for them, businesses were using the 1J visa program to hire foreign students.
That’s drastically changed over the past few years. The local stores of a convenience chain that used to have “we’re hiring” signs every few months, now have those up permanently, along with stacks of blank applications on a table inside the store. I used to hear the area’s state campground manager talk about the 2 foot high stack of applications on his desk. I now have the current one asking me if I know anyone who could apply, because he can’t get enough people. The local state DOT is desperately trying to find people to work there. There are flyers all over asking for people to clean cabins, work at the local museums, and local beaches are likely to close because no one can find lifeguards for them. The 1J program that some businesses used to get staffs has been seriously restricted, so that is no longer an option. The impact on the local economy is that many businesses are likely to be in trouble, and there are worries about what next year will bring.
I’d like to say that this was a surprise to me, but it’s not. It’s been coming for years. The population decline is something that rural areas around the country have been experiencing. Young people are leaving for more urbanized areas, with better employment opportunities. The 2008 recession sped the exodus of younger families, as many of the year-round job opportunities dried up in the face of private business layoffs and government job cuts. Exacerbating that is that affordable housing is virtually non-existent, as a function of the real estate bubble of the 2000’s. Like many popular vacation areas, real estate prices skyrocketed, and with it, many of the previously affordable housing options went away. Unless you already were here, there’s little opportunity to find a place to live. One of the local school board members told me that they’ve had several candidates for teaching positions turn them down, because they can’t find a place to live. People who rely on seasonal labor have told me that they’ve lost people because it costs more to get a place than they’ll make – and that’s after major pay raises.
What can be done about it? Sadly, nothing quickly, and even then, it may not work. We need affordable housing options, both year-round and seasonal. We need broadband internet, which has been glacial in getting here. We need more year-round employment opportunities. We need to have local grocery stores. Changes in regulations how we develop property, particularly housing density. As I said, nothing that’s going to happen overnight, and not something that’s going to be solved simply by throwing money at it. It’s “bootstrapping,” in that as things happen, and get more people in, the other things follow.
It’s going to get worse before that though. Millions of people visit the Adirondacks every year to hunt, fish, hike, camp, and enjoy the scenic beauty. But the people who used to provide the services to do all those things are disappearing, someday, the visitors will wonder where it all went.