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Upstate, Forgotten But Not Gone

Most of us know that upstate New York struggles. When it comes to economic matters it does. Fewer new jobs, new businesses and expanding businesses than most parts of the U.S. enjoy.

Upstaters suffer nearly the lowest income growth of any region in the U.S. The Southern Tier has particularly bad figures.

We know upstate cities were gutted beginning 50 years ago.Most downtowns stagnated. Factories shuttered. Populations dwindled.

Many a small town has taken it on the chin as well.

Some upstaters don’t mind. They like it that you can go back to an upstate community 40 years later and it all looks the same as it was. Some towns could use a slogan like “We ain’t changed much.” Or “You’ll find things just as you left ’em.”

There is something to be said for that. Progress is sometimes only so-called.

We can admire the valiant efforts of some upstate cities to revive themselves. They have helped developers convert empty warehouses to condos. They have restored old theaters and hotels. They have seen beat-up neighborhoods gentrified.

Driving through them you can almost hear “We haven’t given up!”

Revival is an uphill battle. This is because people keep trickling out of upstate. Communities struggle to pay for schools built for twice the number of students who now attend.

Rejuvenation would be easier if the tide was coming in. If more people arrived. And more businesses brought their capital and their jobs into upstate. Instead, of course, the opposite occurs. And has for many years.

There is a type of lethargy that eases its way into communities that lose jobs, people and businesses. Because among those losses are volumes of energy and enthusiasm and ideas. The losses upstate become gains for communities elsewhere.

The losses include money. Many upstate communities are just not as wealthy as they used to be. Their charities and churches and community projects suffer. My local United Way raises about as much money today as it did 25 years ago.

Most of us know why upstate has taken it on the chops. It suffers from a number of “mores”. More or higher taxes than most parts of the country. More costly regulations that hamper businesses. More restrictions from state government that make businesses feel they are not welcome. More barriers to economic growth. For example, the virtual ban on new pipelines and the fracking ban.

Developers sing the blues. About the many ways the state inflicts costs on them they would not face in other states. Upstate farmers are about to be hit by new costs thanks to a farm-labor rights and unionization bill. Upstate landlords will soon be hit by the sorts of rent caps that the Big Apple has suffered for decades. Those caps drove rents sky-high in New York City. They will do the same upstate.

Is there any ways to reverse the situation? Yes. But we are not likely to see them in two lifetimes.

Our leaders could turn New York into a low-tax state. We now have about the highest taxes of any state. If we had the lowest we would attract people and businesses and business expansion. The pattern is clear. People and businesses move from high-tax to low-tax states.

Could we become a low-tax, low-regulation state? Not likely. During the glory years we built government and infrastructure befitting a wealthy state. One whose population and businesses were growing by the year. Now we are stuck with these built-in costs. As our population and wealth diminish.

Here is a comparison you won’t like to see. The square footage your county’s operations take up today. Versus forty years ago. The county’s population may be the same now as it was then. Good chance that is the case. The square footage is probably two or three times as great. All of which has to be heated and maintained.

It is needed because the state has imposed and mandated so many programs on the counties.

Shrink the role of the state. Shrink state government itself. Shrink the regulations and employees and buildings and vehicles the state and counties require. That would help.

Good luck with that. It would call for rabid reformers among our politicians. They would need support from voters who absolutely demanded and insisted on such reforms.

Have you seen much of that lately?

If we split the state into two we would see reforms. Downstaters run the state. No secret. Downstaters care little or nothing about upstate. No secret. If their morning news told them upstate fell off a cliff last night, they would shrug and go about their lives.

If upstate was a separate state the new legislators and governor would address upstate’s problems and promise. They would heed the voices and demands of upstaters. Unlike Albany today. They would have no choice.

There have been calls galore for splitting the state. But sweet little enthusiasm for it from New Yorkers, be they upstate or down.

So I guess upstaters will just have to make the most of what is. Because prospects for really big changes are few.

Meanwhile, upstate offers knockout beauty. It offers cities of character, small towns brimming with charm. If you are happy that things don’t change much, stick around.

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