Adirondack towns need leadership and unity as times change and government budgets shrink, said panelists at the Visitors Interpretive center Sept. 30.
Reporter Brian Mann's “The Other Endangered Species” in October's Adirondack Life sparked a panel dicussion Friday, with another planned Oct. 5 in Lake Placid.
The article has created a lively dialogue around the park, said Elizabeth Folwell, Adirondack Life's creative director. These panels are a forum to carry the debate into a public space.
“We want to smoke out ideas,” said Folwell. “You can only do so much on Facebook.”
What the Park lacks, said Mann, is central thinking and leadership. When town officials or businesspeople hit a wall in their projects, there's nobody on the other end of a phone call for guidance. In his article, Mann proposed the Adirondack Park Agency take up that role. Other organizations could be the unifying catalyst for community revitalization, but so far, nobody's stepped up, said Mann.
One of the ideas with the most weight in the evening's discussion was employment in the park.
Brad Dake, who chairs the Adirondack Park Regional Assessment Project, said “We have old people, very few young people. Our young people are leaving.”
Paul Hai of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, who maintain the Visitors Center, said the dominance of tourism in the local economy can be problematic.
“We all know the dangers of monoculture,” said Hai. One crop is more vulnerable to disease, insects and weather than a diverse garden. Extend that idea to the economy, said Hai. Focusing on tourism will leave no options and a vulnerable workforce.
John Warren, who runs AdirondackAlmanack.com, was invited to attend after he posted “An Open Letter to Brian Mann,” to the site. It was critical of Mann's assertions that the park's towns were in trouble.
Many thousands of homes have been built over the last few decades by second home owners, said Warren. Tourism is how park residents make a living.
“Let’s not forget where our bread is buttered,” he said.
But half of the homes in the Park go dark for two-thirds of the year, responded Mann. Despite expectations, he said, there's no cash economy around the tourists. Shopping options haven't increased and job opportunities haven't diversified, he said.
Instead, the Park has been a major mecca for government spending, said Mann. Town and state jobs at schools, prisons and local government agencies fill in the gap that private industry hasn't been able to bridge, said Mann. But government budgets are shrinking.
“The great era of state spending is over,” Mann said.
A discussion about the changing picture in the Park could have been leisurely, but with the recession and severe state spending cuts, the future of Adirondack towns needs to be discussed now, said Mann.
Folwell said her magazine is working on a story about employment in the Park. Her staff's research has found that all but one of the top 10 park employers are health-care focused. International Paper is the exception.
Mann noted that many of those health-care jobs are at least partially subsidized through government programs, and may be vulnerable to cuts as well.
The best way to grow our towns and economy is to start at home and teach our youth to have pride in local resources, said Leilani Ulrich of the Common Ground Alliance and Adirondack Community Housing Trust.
On a recent visit to Finland, Ulrich dined with a host family. Their dining room was in the basement, paneled with wood. Not only did the family know where the wood came from, they knew where it was milled and took great pride in their local resources.
Hai said it's also important to connect children and families with the outdoors. Many young Adirondackers Hai has met have never been in a canoe or kayak. If youth aren't encouraged to partake in their landscape, it will have less significance for them and they'll be happy to move on to bigger cities with more jobs, said Hai.
Ulrich said she also encountered tourist information centers everywhere she went. It was easy to find someone who could speak her language or get information on nearby destinations. The Park should have the same kind of unified information system to encourage tourism.
Warren noted that getting useful information can be tough in the Park. He does weather reports for public radio focused on trail conditions. When trying to find out whether some snowmobile trails were open, he simply could not get the information.
An issue in the Park is some people have an insular mind set that keeps outsiders from enjoying all the same resources as locals, said Warren.