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The kind of economic development that’s hard to measure

March 5, 2012
By PETER CROWLEY - Managing Editor ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

SARANAC LAKE - It occurred to me on the first Saturday of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, while I was taking my two daughters on a tour of the Ice Palace. It was packed with happy people - visitors and locals, kids and adults - and I happened to be talking with Robin and Dave Johnson. Robin was one of the lead ice carvers who sculpted the transformers, spaceships, teleporters and a Marvin the Martian statue, all to go with this year's "Space Alien Invasion" Carnival theme. As I was telling them how great it all was, to my complete surprise, some words like these fell out of my mouth:

Events like Winter Carnival, recreation venues like local ski areas - these are the best economic development mechanisms an Adirondack community can hope for.

The reason is that they foster in kids an abiding love of their hometown. As those kids grow into adults and make big decisions, that love can weigh heavily in the balance of where they choose to live and possibly raise their own children.

Article Photos

Does an ice palace with a tunnel for kids to crawl through count as economic development?
(Enterprise file photo — Chris Knight)

Some of those children, as they grow up, will choose careers that can't be pursued easily in the Adirondacks. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy and CNBC personality Dylan Ratigan couldn't do what they do from their hometown of Saranac Lake - same for Lana Del Rey (aka Lizzy Grant) of Lake Placid or any number of less famous professionals. They have to move elsewhere, and for many of them, that is just fine.

But many kids acquire skills and vocations they could try to practice here, even if they wouldn't make as much money as they might somewhere else. Construction trades, health care, arts, hospitality, business, education, communications, science, technology, social services - these and many other fields can be pursued here, if one wants to.

While Adirondack communities have a good quality of life, they have relatively few good-paying jobs - that's commonly acknowledged. Often one has to accept a pay cut to live here.

But many do, at least in Saranac Lake, Bloomingdale, Jay and Wilmington, where the year-round population grew greatly in the 2000s. In other, neighboring communities, the population fell, sometimes sharply. It's hard to explain why; too many mysterious factors are involved.

And why's it such a big deal for towns to retain their kids anyway? Communities come and go, grow and shrink - it's natural. They can't all grow at the same time. People are free to go where they want. That's life.

When I finished high school in Montgomery, Ala., I was gone. After university, as an English major in no particular demand, the deal was to move somewhere I liked and look for work. I came here, where I'd come to visit my grandparents my whole life. Eventually, I got a job that used at least a few of the skills I'd gained in college. I made it work.

My wife, from northern Alberta, and I thought hightailing it out of your hometown was normal; it mystifies us that kids (including ours) love where they live and can see themselves staying here the rest of their lives.

I have to say, it's pretty cool being somewhere like that, where people like us want to be. What draws us? The whole package, but I can really feel it at times like Carnival, or while watching my kids ski at Mount Pisgah, or while skiing on frozen Lake Colby, or while seeing my friends' bands play at local music festivals. Sometimes I even feel it while working at this job at the newspaper.

Granted, we can't measure the long-term economic impact of Winter Carnival or other local enterprises that beget hometown pride, but can anyone doubt that they have such an impact? Maybe because it's an immeasurable factor, it's a bigger one than most people realize. I'd bet it's more effective than almost anything politicians or nonprofit agencies do. I tend to distrust "job creation": Democrats' stimulus schemes, Republicans' trickle-down tax breaks and pretty much the entire swath of state, county and nonprofit economic development groups. They may do some good, but not where I can see it.

I see real job creation coming from the ground up, not from the capitals down.

I suppose that makes me hopelessly provincial, but maybe that's why I prefer to live in a small town.



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