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Coping with population decline

Hamilton County suffers biggest decrease in state

April 23, 2011
By JESSICA COLLIER - Staff Writer (jcollier@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

INDIAN LAKE - Ann Miller does it all at Indian Lake Restaurant - everything from serving you a drink at the bar, seating you at a table in the restaurant, taking your order, then cooking and serving your food, to selling you a bottle of liquor at the adjoining liquor store to take home for a nightcap.

That's what she's had to do to survive as the owner of a small business in her county.

Hamilton County saw the biggest population drop in New York state between 2000 and 2010, according to recently released numbers by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Article Photos

Downtown Indian Lake doesn't see much traffic on a typical weekday in March.
(Enterprise photo — Jessica Collier)

The county, which has the third-largest area of any county in the state and not a single stop light, lost about 10 percent of its population in the last 10 years and is now home to 4,836 people, dropping it to fewer people than live in the village of Saranac Lake.

That kind of population drop makes it difficult to run a business, but while the residents of Hamilton County are struggling, they are also finding ways to fit their business models to the community in order to survive.

Ann and John Miller said they stay in business by having good employees who can multi-task and are cross-trained on the various jobs in the business, which consists of a bar, a restaurant and a liquor store.

They also do much of the work themselves. John Miller is the restaurant's main chef, and he works most of the shifts that the restaurant is open. Ann Miller can do every job in the place, filling in wherever she's needed on any given shift.

Next-door to the restaurant, the town's only grocery store closed a year-and-a-half ago, dealing a big blow to the area.

"It's really negatively impacted the community," Ann Miller said.

People used to come to the grocery store and stop at other businesses on the trip, like grabbing a drink or take-out, she said. Now people bypass the center of town and head to North Creek or travel the hour to Glens Falls to buy groceries.

Nicole Delcore, who runs Hutch N' Stuff Eclectic Old and New in Indian Lake, said she remembers a time when she was young when her town supported three grocery stores.

Delcore has also diversified her business, which sells antiques, jewelry and clothes. She also runs a great-camp restoration business out of the building, which is where she makes most of her money catering to higher-end, second-home clients.

"That's how we've survived. It wasn't planned. That's just how it happened," Delcore said. "You have to do more than one thing. You can't just run one business."

Carol Young, who owns the Adirondack Hotel in Long Lake, said she has seen business decline over the years due to the lack of year-round residents in her town.

Of course the hotel part of her business is supported by people from out of town, but increasingly the bar and restaurant on the ground floor are also relying on out-of-town patrons, she said.

She said this year has been especially hard. It was the first year she had to lay off people who are typically her year-round staff.

"It wasn't easy, but I had no choice," Young said. "This has been a really bad year."

She notes that in addition to fewer people, food costs are up 16 percent and gas prices are rising too, so her overhead is soaring and there's only so much she can raise prices before people stop paying them.

Like many other Adirondack businesses, Young can't get enough help from the local workforce in the summer, so she brings foreign staff here on work visas.

"There's never enough people, and (the foreign employees are) hard workers, and they come and they do a great job. It would be impossible without them," Young said. "For a lot of us here in Long Lake, they're a big asset."

Other businesses haven't had as many troubles as a result of the population drop, though.

Charlie Johns Store, a Speculator grocery store, has seen an increase in business since the Indian Lake supermarket shut down.

"At Charlie Johns, we've maintained a steady growth of sales every year, which we've been very fortunate to achieve," said Jonathan Lane, who owns Charlie Johns Store and Speculator Department Store.

He said there's no way of knowing, though, how much greater the growth would have been if the population hadn't declined.

Lane said store sales have gone up and down at the department but that may be more from the economy since the merchandise is more discretionary.

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Nonprofits

The low number of businesses in the county leaves a heavy reliance on nonprofit organizations to draw people to the community and keep the economy going.

The Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts in Blue Mountain Lake, a hamlet within the town of Indian Lake, has been growing despite the population drop since Executive Director Stephen Svoboda took over a few years ago. Executive Assistant Camille Nerney said that's because the organization has been doing a lot of outreach to people that wouldn't normally be patrons of the arts center in order to counter the population decrease.

The center does things like setting up programs at Sunmount DDSO in Tupper Lake, as well as touring with shows to various Adirondack communities, rather than keeping a play in-house and expecting people to come to Blue Mountain Lake.

"Our numbers show that it's working," Nerney said. "We are increasing and succeeding more each year in spite of the population issues."

The Indian Lake Theater, originally opened in 1938, was bought in 2008 by a community-based group and is now being run as a nonprofit business in order to keep it thriving. About 400 people helped the group raise $160,000 in 12 weeks to secure the building.

Besides those nonprofits, Delcore said the people of Indian Lake often try to pull together charity events to help support people in the community. She's in the process of helping to plan a charity yard sale for Memorial Day weekend to raise money for the town's senior meal site, fire department, little league and other organizations. She's also helping to plan an antiques weekend in September to draw people to the community.

"We have to do these little things to keep the town alive," Delcore said.

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School enrollment

Many said they weren't surprised by the population drop because they knew school enrollment numbers have been on the decline for years. Ann Miller said she graduated from Indian Lake High School with 38 kids in her class. Her daughter is a senior this year and her class is about half that size with 20 students. And that's not the worst of it; her seventh-grader has nine students in his class.

Mark Brand, superintendent of the Indian Lake Central School District, said his district had 213 students when he first started in 2003, and since then it has dropped almost 30 percent to 152.

He said the enrollment drop is a challenge because even though student numbers are declining, there are still some costs that don't decrease due to fewer students, increasing the cost per student.

And with a $115,000 drop in state aid this year, his district has had to make some tough choices, cutting $130,000 from the first draft of its budget by dropping programs like summer elementary school, field trips and summer driver's education. So far it has been able to keep things that the school board finds important for a small district, like distance learning and college-level courses.

Brand said municipalities and organizations should be working regionally to bring more residents into the community. He said that with class sizes in the low teens, the district could easily absorb more students and spread the costs around.

"I'd love to have 50 kids move in tomorrow," Brand said. "But you've got to have jobs up here for people."

Wells Central School District Superintendent John Zeis said he has found the same issues, though enrollment there has stayed steady between 175 and 180 over the past decade. He said this year the school has one of the larger senior classes that it has seen in a while, but next year's senior class will be smaller, as will the overall school population.

"What the declining enrollment does is make it less cost-effective," Zeis said. "There are a smaller number of kids available for electives in the high school."

Long Lake's school district has also seen its enrollment numbers decline for years. Class sizes this year range from one student to 11.

District Superintendent Mary Jo Dickerson said Long Lake's school board has been working on a strategic plan to attract more families with young children to the area.

They are looking at emphasizing the arts and environmental sciences in order to set the district apart from other schools and make it more attractive, Dickerson said. She said they plan to continue to offer all the normal core classes as well.

Long Lake has also formed strong shared-services bonds with four other school districts: Johnsburg, Indian Lake, Minerva and Newcomb. They do professional development training together and some share guidance counselors and special education services. Several of the schools join together to form sports teams. Four of the five districts even share a prom.

In Lake Pleasant, Superintendent Ernest Virgil said the school has four more students than last year.

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Reasons

Ann Miller said the main reason people are leaving the county is because there are so few full-time jobs.

Delcore said one of the big problems is the lack of infrastructure like cell towers.

The lack of a nearby hospital has also given some people pause, she said. When people have kids or start getting older and need regular doctor's care, it's hard to live in a place where it's 55 miles to the closest hospital.

She also said she blames the state Adirondack Park Agency's restrictions for keeping people from creating jobs in the county.

"It boils down to political; it's very political," Delcore said.

All but two of the counties in the Adirondack Park saw their populations grow from 2000 to 2010, but Delcore said that's because those other counties have some sort of industry to keep them afloat and draw people there. For example, North Creek has Gore Mountain Ski Resort and Tupper Lake has The Wild Center. But Indian Lake and the rest of Hamilton County doesn't have an anchor like that.

She suggested that the solution should be for the business and government community to get together to find a collective identity to market and target for industry.

Long Lake businessman John Hosley said he blames not just the APA but all state agencies for the population decline. Hosley said land purchases by the state Department of Environmental Conservation has killed the logging industry, state building codes are too rigid and the state Department of Health puts unreasonable restrictions on businesses as well, noting that Long Lake used to have 408 rooms for overnight accommodations in 1976, and now that number has dropped to 81.

"And as a result, we're ending up like the state of New York: We're failing," Hosley said.

But make no mistake, Hosley puts plenty of the blame squarely on the APA.

"I could name 15 businesses that would be in Long Lake right now if it weren't for the APA, and that would mean 15 families," Hosley said.

He said it isn't the small year-round population that's hurting businesses. Instead, it's the inability to grow to meet the needs of the transient tourism population.

Hosley suggests that the APA draw a 4-mile circle around a point in the center of Long Lake and let people do whatever they want on the land within that circle, and do the same for all the other population centers in the Park with larger circles for more populated areas.

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Mud season

The census counted where people lived on April 1, 2010. Several people mentioned that it's misleading to look at the county's population on that date, the beginning of mud season, because that's the time when there are the fewest people there.

The Millers said they close down their restaurant during April for cleaning and maintenance, since it's the slowest month of the year.

In the summer, the number of people in Indian Lake increases dramatically.

"It's crazy here in the summer," Ann Miller said.

But Indian Lake resident Kathy Bird said that even the tourism economy isn't as good as it used to be. When she was growing up, the community was more of a vacation destination. Mothers would bring their children and spend the entire summer there. But now, it's mostly grandparents coming for the summer, and their grandchildren will join them for maybe a week at best.

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Small-town life

Many were also quick to point out the benefits of living in a small town.

"A lot of us are here because it's a small community," Young said. "We like the small population."

John Miller said he loves that he can rely on his neighbors, leave his keys in the car and leave his door unlocked.

Delcore's house burned down earlier this year, and she said the community has been very supportive in helping her out so she can recover from the fire.

She said she knew two couples in their 80s who sold everything and moved away, thinking they were done with Indian Lake, but then they moved back because they so missed the sense of community there.

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Barbara Cook, a reporter for the Leader-Herald of Gloversville, contributed to this report.

 
 

 

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