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People are moving out of the north country


The anecdotal evidence is now supported by cold, sad facts: thousands of now-former residents of Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties have fled the state, following in the wake of the jobs that also have left.

“We can all point to examples,” St. Lawrence County planner John F. Tenbusch said. “‘I knew Cindy. I knew Pete. Cindy moved to Colorado. Pete moved to Florida.’”

From 2000 to 2010:

■ In Jefferson County, 4,127 more residents, or 3.7 percent of the population, left for other states or countries than moved into the county.

■ In St. Lawrence County, 2,679 more residents, or 1.7 percent, left the county than moved in.

■ In Lewis County, 831 more residents, or 3.1 percent, left the county than moved in.

The figures in Jefferson and Lewis counties are near the state average of a 3.7 percent loss in population due to migration. And in the nation, only three states lost residents to migration at a quicker clip than New York.

The figures, based on yearly Census estimates analyzed by the conservative Empire Center for New York State Policy, don’t include the rates of births and deaths. That explains how Jefferson County can lose 3.7 percent of its population to migration, but post a 4 percent gain in the decennial Census. St. Lawrence and Lewis counties had relatively static population totals.

In the north country, the numbers tell a well-known tale of a sluggish job market, Fort Drum’s influence and, near the end of the decade, perhaps a turnaround.

“I would view the domestic migration as one of a jobs issue,” said Charles C. Fenner, an associate business professor at SUNY Canton. “And specifically, if you look at St. Lawrence County, with the closing of the GM plant in 2009, you have to not only consider the 900 jobs that were lost in the GM plant, but there are the jobs of the people who cut the people’s hair and sold them their groceries, too.”

A co-author of the Empire Center report agreed with that assessment.

“This is not a new phenomenon,” said Robert L. Scardamalia. “The entire national economy is a very different process today than it was 20 or 30 years ago. There’s a heavy loss of manufacturing and industrial jobs.”

Mr. Scardamalia painted a more nuanced picture than is often portrayed in political spheres — that high taxes and burdensome regulations are driving residents out of the state.

“People often like to say, ‘Taxes are too high,’” he said. “That may be true, that may be a piece of it, but there are lots of other issues that are going on that affect population movement.”

Among them: automation of assembling goods, more efficient transportation that can bring in the goods from half the world away, and an economy that relies more heavily on service-based jobs for which location is much less important.

In June figures from the U.S. Department of Labor, St. Lawrence County had a jobless rate of 10.7 percent, Jefferson County had a jobless rate of 9 percent and Lewis County had a jobless rate of 8.8 percent. Those figures all are above state statistics. Nationally, 9.2 percent of Americans were out of work.

International immigration served as a bright spot in St. Lawrence County, which welcomed 735 residents from overseas. Experts infer from the data that the county’s four colleges, with its diverse student and professor populations, helped fuel that.

Some numbers, though, are more difficult to analyze. Mr. Scardamalia described Fort Drum, home of the 10th Mountain Division, as “a demographer’s nightmare.”

The Census estimates are based heavily on data that don’t always do a good job of capturing a military population — tax return records, for example.

But it should come as little surprise that Jefferson County was the only county in the state that lost a significant number of residents to international emigration, with 863 residents moving overseas; those numbers jumped in 2003, at the beginning of the war in Iraq. Troop deployments are counted as international migration, so deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, or even rotations to military bases abroad, heavily tilt those numbers.

“One of the factors here is the military population,” said Donald R. Canfield, director of the Jefferson County Planning Department.

The county should see an increase in population as more soldiers rotate back from Afghanistan.

Mr. Fenner, the SUNY Canton professor, said that the military population and its accompanying salaries also will help create those spinoff jobs.

“They need places to live, furniture, entertainment,” he said. “The economic boom of a military really creates ancillary employment for many folks.”

That could explain how Jefferson County is slowly reversing its decade-long trend. From 2008 to 2009, it gained 564 residents via migration, with 571 entering the county via other states and seven people leaving for overseas. Lewis County gained 22 residents from other states and lost two overseas. St. Lawrence County continued its trend, shedding 155 residents to other states and gaining 64 from overseas.

Mr. Scardamalia said the north country is not unique when compared with other upstate areas or other Northeastern industrial states. And these trends have held for decades. In one Adirondack community, Mr. Scardamalia recalled, a high school had a graduating class of just one student.

“These are dramatic population changes,” he said. “You have to have something providing jobs to provide population growth.”

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