by Connor Smith, 2020 ANCA Graduate Fellow
My introduction to the Adirondack Park was made through a summer camp in 2016 when a friend convinced me to work in Saranac Lake. As a resident of the West Coast, I was excited for an opportunity to explore the East as I knew nothing about the area. Somewhere along the way, I must have caught the Adirondack bug, because four years later I am back in the area.
I’ve been working this summer as a Graduate Fellow at ANCA, supporting the work of the Center for Businesses of Transition. As I ponder what my future will look like upon the completion of my fellowship, moving to the North Country is an option I am considering. I do have reservations about transitioning to full time life inside the Blue Line; here are some of the questions I ask myself:
Does the pace of life fit my own?
I am currently a graduate student at Cornell University studying City and Regional Planning. In my work, I must create workable spaces for society, by using human habits as my guide to make efficient systems. Social patterns in non-rural communities often have a heightened emphasis on efficiency and instant gratification.
Despite growing up in a rural area, instant gratification has become part of my life. Gone are the days of my childhood waiting for dial-up internet to load a picture or short video;now I cringe when Netflix pauses to buffer. Even in a small city like Ithaca I can take out my phone and order a burrito any time of day and have it delivered.
Moving to the Adirondack Park has been a reminder that I, like many Americans, expect and live off of instant gratification. While I love the slow pace of quaint towns nestled in the mountains, I am coming to terms with what it would be like to live here long term. Do my habits fit into the rhythm of this place and space?
Will I be able to be in a community with a diverse group of individuals?
One thing that took me off guard when I first entered the Adirondacks was its lack of diversity — so much so that I wanted to dig deeper into some data.
The Adirondacks in fact is one of the least diverse places in America. Its homogenous population is vastly white and between the ages of 45-70. When compared to a place like Colorado, it is clear the lack of diversity may be a driver of population decline and a lack of interest from young professionals.
Colorado is the eighth fastest-growing state, and when demographically sorted, communities that identify as white are statistically similar to the Adirondacks. The fastest-growing group in Colorado is the Hispanic community, with 25% of the state identifying as Hispanic and projected to be 33% by 2040.
In contrast, the Adirondacks has a Hispanic population of less than 5%, with Jefferson County leading with 6.9% of individuals identifying as Hispanic. In comparison, Lewis County only has 1.7% of the population identifying as Hispanic.
Headwaters Economics, an independent research firm from Montana, found in a study of Western states that, “Ninety-nine percent of rural western counties have seen growth in minority populations during the past 35 years. In two out of every five rural western counties, population decrease was slowed or reversed because of growth in minority populations. Growing minority populations bring economic vitality, social and cultural diversity, and youth into many otherwise shrinking and aging rural communities.”
As a person looking to start a career and become a member of the community, it is difficult for me to reconcile moving into such a homogeneous place because I believe diverse communities are the foundation of resilient beautiful societies.
Where are all the young people?
The states that have succeeded in growing have done so by attracting diverse groups of young professionals. As a young person in the Adirondacks, it's safe to say there are not a lot of us. As seen in the graphics from Regional Economic Analysis for the Adirondack North Country, which was published by ANCA and partners in 2019, the North Country age distribution does not reflect that of the rest of America.
The ANCA region has a disproportionately high number of individuals ages 45-70 and a below-average number of 25-40-year olds. By moving to the North Country, I would be sacrificing some of the opportunities to interact with people my age. Not having as many young people in the community may not seem like a big issue. When moving from the university environment where I am surrounded by people my age to a community with below-average numbers of young people, it is a significant shift.
The North Country and Adirondack region do not suffer from a lack of natural beauty or tourism-based economic opportunity. However, one reason for the region's declining population is the pressure early career professionals feel to sustain a fast-paced lifestyle and stay relevant in a competitive economy.
The Adirondack region does not have to lose its character to urbanization and suburban sprawl to attract and sustain young people to the area, but it does need to address why the population is decreasing. Simply relying on the natural beauty or abundance of hiking trails is not enough to attract young people. While there is no perfect solution, being cognizant of the needs of early career professionals in the region is important.
When considering a move to the Adirondacks, young people should find a community willing to embrace them and work with them and not be met by a community only interested in homogeny and maintaining the status quo. Avoiding individuals who desire a lifestyle different than yourself does not make the community stronger. The character of Adirondacks is not inviting to young people whose fast-paced life is looked down upon and whose desires for convenience are demonized. While you don’t need to start your own YouTube channel or get a Twitter account to maintain an open-minded and a supportive attitude, you can contribute to making the Adirondacks a more welcoming place.
Embracing change is not an easy thing to do. However, the tight knit communities of the Adirondacks are perfect for incubating new ideas and demonstrating the benefits of living in a supportive, diverse and inclusive local community.
Connor Smith holds a bachelor’s degree in International Agricultural Development from Andrews University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. His research interests include agriculture and food systems as well as the social and economic make up of rural communities. While working this summer in the Adirondacks Connor has enjoyed spending time on the lake, hiking mountains, and learning more about the history of the region.