With very few exceptions, the slow and steady flow of people out of upstate New York counties rolls on.
The latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates indicate a net upstate population loss of 23,434 people from July 2015 to July 2016. For the first time in more than a decade, population growth downstate — the lower Hudson Valley, New York City and Long Island — was less than the shrinkage upstate, causing a net decline in population.
The Empire Center, an Albany think tank, issued a report Thursday analyzing the data. It noted that the number of people moving out of upstate is much greater than the net population loss, because it is counterbalanced by births and people moving in.
Between the April 1, 2010, Census count and the July 1, 2016, Census estimate, 93,530 more people moved out of upstate New York than moved in; 42,713 more people were born than died. The net population loss was 59,648.
Everyone who leaves has their own reasons for doing so, but for many, it comes down to money: The ability to earn enough of it to live a good life, or just live.
The two counties in the Capital Region with the strongest economies, Albany and Saratoga, were the only ones to show significant population growth from 2010 to 2016 — 1.5 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively. Rensselaer County’s population grew 0.4 percent during that period, but every surrounding county showed a loss, from a scant 0.1 percent in Schenectady County to Schoharie County’s 4.4 percent, one of the larger drops in all of upstate.
The ring of counties beyond that — Columbia, Greene, Hamilton, Herkimer, Warren, Washington — all lost population as well. Hamilton County, already the least populous in the state, saw a 6.6 percent decline, the largest drop in the state.
Many of the now-former Schoharie County residents moved out shortly after the devastating 2011 floods, but the county was losing population before the floods and is still losing it, six years later.
“Our issue countywide is lack of jobs,” said Cobleskill Mayor Linda Holmes. “They’re moving so they can find jobs.”
She said the village itself has made strides toward downtown revitalization, but some new retail jobs don’t turn a region’s economy around. The huge former Guilford Mills complex is back in business in new hands, she noted, but with 60 jobs instead of the 500 it had in the old days.
The district of Assemblyman Pete Lopez, R-Schoharie, stretches all the way to the Hudson River. As he drives from east to west, he can literally see the economy sagging further and further, and the population growing more sparse.
Many people want to live in rural areas, he said, but not with hour-long commutes to the city, and slow internet service, and underfunded schools for their children. Changing these things, he said, is the key to revitalizing rural upstate and stabilizing its population.
Agriculture and light manufacturing are the most likely economic engines in rural areas, Lopez said. High-speed broadband access is also important, as a lot of businesses rely on it.
“Where we can stimulate the economy, people stay, they have jobs,” he said
Part of Lopez’s district, Delaware County, had one of the highest population losses in the state for 2010-2016: 5.1 percent.
Another population-loser was Montgomery County; 1,082 people moved out between 2010 and 2016, dropping the county below the 50,000 mark.
County Executive Matthew Ossenfort said what hurts the most about the shrinkage is that many of those who leave are young adults; their departure creates stagnation in the present and more shrinkage in the future.
“I think we all understand the problem — the brain drain and losing young people,” he said. “I think we’ve really been focused on our strengths to halt that trend and ultimately reverse that trend.”
By that, Ossenfort means that Montgomery County is a good place to live, with affordable housing, good recreational resources and a high quality of life.
The problem is that there aren’t enough jobs.
“We won’t blink our eyes and have it be the 1950s again, with carpet the mills,” he said, but he noted other job-creating initiatives are in the works, including the Dollar General distribution center in Amsterdam, revitalization of the Exit 29 area where Beech-Nut once stood, downtown revitalization and riverfront development.
“This isn’t something specific to Montgomery County, it’s an upstate New York issue,” Ossenfort said. “We can complain or we can do something about it, and we are. I think there’s a path forward to turn this around.”
The Center for Economic Growth, an economic and business development organization, has as its mission the improvement of the Capital Region business climate.
President and CEO Andrew Kennedy said growth in rural areas will likely continue to derive from the strength of the core.
“The population growth in Albany and Saratoga counties indicate that we’re onto something,” he said via email Thursday. “We’ve got a good economic engine – one of the best in the state. Not every county can be a tech hub, and the challenge is helping those other counties work synergistically with our economic drivers to create a stronger region as a whole.”
Ways to accomplish this could include population health technology, clean tech clusters, more support for agricultural and food enterprises, and enhanced workforce-training initiatives, Kennedy said.
The standout county in the Capital Region, Saratoga, enjoys a variety of factors that attract new residents.
Even so, County Planner Jason Kemper noted that the changes from year to year are generally small percentages. It does add up over time, but it’s slow and steady.
The growth allows the county to offer a larger array of services and keep its taxes low, but it also requires municipalities to monitor and adapt their infrastructure, zoning and planning, and revisit their goals as communities.
Population growth also comes increased demand on infrastructure such as roads, water supplies, sewer systems and schools, he said.
The county is cited as the growing area by the Census data, but it is the individual municipalities that have control over growth within their borders. Because of this, or because of their geographic isolation, some towns see little growth.
“Certain municipalities are encouraging residential and/or commercial growth where others are focusing on preservation of the remaining land available for development,” Kemper said via email. “From a county planning perspective our goal is to provide whatever resources we can to help the municipality achieve their desired goals.”
Mark Castiglione, executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, said multiunit housing construction permits are now outnumber single-family permits in the region, suggesting a large number of people will be renting rather than buying their homes in the near future, and so not have a mortgage to tie them to the area.
This is particularly true of the millennial generation, which lags behind its elders in homeownership.
“Being mobile is a function of the modern economy,” Castiglione said.
The following numbers show the county’s counted population as of April 1, 2010; the estimated population as of July 1, 2016; and the percentage change:
Albany 304,204 308,846 +1.5%
Fulton 55,531 53,828 -3.1%
Montgomery 50,219 49,276 -1.9%
Rensselaer 159,429 160,070 +0.4%
Saratoga 219,607 227,053 +3.4%
Schenectady 154,727 154,553 -0.1%
Schoharie 32,749 31,317 -4.4%