CHESTERTOWN - During a forum held by area state legislators to focus on Adirondack issues, Dave Scranton of Inlet stood up in a crowded auditorium and talked of how jobs, commerce and industry were becoming scarce across the region.
"For Adirondack communities, it's about survival," he said, blaming the state for obstructing development by acquiring land for wilderness. "We're getting squeezed out here."
As Scranton was blaming the Adirondack Park Agency for over-zealous regulation, forum moderator Bill Farber of the town of Morehouse yanked the microphone from Scranton's hands.
"We're keeping things positive," Farber said, noting he didn't necessarily disagree with the comments, but the meeting was intended to air only constructive ideas.
While Scranton's complaints were cut short, the first public forum of the Adirondack Caucus - a group of state legislators representing the region - heard a mixture of both complaints and initiatives for improving life in the Adirondacks from the 100 or so who attended the two-hour event April 14.
Whether it was boosting incentives for business development, consolidating public school administrations or spurring cooperation between communities, people from all over the Adirondacks offered their ideas.
Good jobs, affordable housing are crucial
Many of those speaking out did get their criticisms aired, however, as they offered suggestions.
Julie Berry of Indian Lake said she had to work two to three jobs to make a living as a health aide to sustain her household.
"I can't work more than 24/7," she said. "I'd like to see more long-term health care services in place."
She suggested that more long-term health care facilities be established, and for more nursing career educational courses to be available for Adirondack Park residents.
Jeremy Burch of Chestertown, 20, a SUNY Adirondack Forestry student, said that employment was scarce, and a large number of Adirondackers were forced to commute long distances for their jobs.
"Tax cuts and incentives for small businesses would be amazing, go for it," he said, referring to a Adirondack economic development zone proposed by the Adirondack Caucus legislators. "There are no really good-paying jobs here."
Holding his seven-month-old son, Jim Kearney of Brant Lake said Adirondack communities desperately needed not only decent jobs and wages, but affordable housing.
"My family can't afford life in the Adirondacks," he said, noting that others in his generation couldn't afford to make a reasonable living here. "We need affordable housing programs - not a handout, but a helping hand to get into a house."
The testimony of Berry, Burch and Kearney was underscored by a presentation that launched the forum.
Report details problems in Adirondacks
Municipal planner Jim Martin and Brad Dake, both of Saratoga Springs, presented a summary of the Adirondack Regional Assessment Project, which recently revealed that youth are fleeing the Adirondacks for greater opportunity elsewhere, school enrollment is sinking fast, and Adirondackers are saddled with low prevailing wages, limited job opportunities and expensive housing.
The study results also indicate that Adirondack residents are relatively poor, aging and undereducated, and that jobs are primarily provided by schools and municipalities. In addition, detailed maps devised in the Assessment Project showed that more land than ever was under strict state control - and that the job and income problems were most severe in the core areas of the Adirondacks.
Lorraine Duvall of Keene, however, said she was concerned that the project data might be used improperly to curb preservationist efforts, because the problems detailed were shared by most all rural U.S. communities.
"Let's not blame this on the Adirondack Park," she said. "Let's remember as we talk economic development, that the best thing we have to sell is the environment."
But Neil McGovern of Lake Pleasant disagreed, noting that the project's map and data showed that merely 0.4 percent of the land in the Adirondacks is reserved for hamlets where it can be developed with minimal restriction.
"The report lays it out in spades," he said. "It's our peril if we don't take action."
A prevailing lack of economic opportunity is driving out people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, McGovern said, and it is leading to the erosion of community life.
"We should be scared to death," he said.
Forester: timber industry needs legislative boost
Jim Cappelliano, a forester, also disagreed with Duvall's assertion that the Adirondacks' economic decline was shared by rural America. He said park agency restrictions were hampering the economy, as state land acquisition meant a lot of timber was now off-limits for harvesting.
"We're operating with one hand shackled behind our backs," he said.
Kevin Bartlett, a paper mill worker from Ticonderoga, echoed the point.
"Paper mills are the last bastion of good-paying work for high school graduates," he said. "Regulations are being rammed down our throats, and bureaucracies hamstring us," he said.
Carol Gregson, 83, of Olmstedville also said that development of the lumber and timber business made sense.
"Lumbering is natural and sustainable," she said.
Residents: cut bureaucracy, taxes
Kathie Ferullo of Warrensburg told the legislators hosting the meeting that high taxes were a primary cause of the migration of youth.
"You have to really work on property taxes and make sure young people can stay here," she said.
Mark Hall, supervisor of the Town of Fine (St. Lawrence County) said state legislative support was needed for boosting industry. He cited the success of reviving a paper mill that had closed down. Now it employs 120 people, although decades ago it hosted 400 to 500 workers, he said.
But more help is needed from legislators to create or retain vital jobs, he said. A former industrial site in his town, now contaminated, needs to be cleaned up with the help of the state so a proposed biomass plant with 100 or so jobs can be built, he said.
"The system at this point doesn't allow us to have the site cleaned up and bring in jobs," he said, citing 30 years of bureaucratic delay in holding up development. "We have to make processes workable."
A firefighter from Providence said with the young people moving out of the Adirondacks, it was difficult to staff fire companies and ambulance squads to protect the lives and property of residents.
"People are building big fancy homes, and we need to have funds so we can protect them," he said, suggesting the legislators boost aid for emergency response agencies and subsidies for volunteers.
Proprietor: Get heard in Albany!
Others focused entirely on constructive ideas.
Laurie Arnheiter, proprietor of Hudson River Trading Co, a shop in North Creek, suggested that all part-year Adirondack residents declare their Adirondack home as their primary residence and register to vote here.
Not only could it substantially boost federal aid to the Adirondacks, but it would boost legislative influence in Albany, she said.
"This is one way we can have a bigger impact," she said.
Naj Wikoff of Keene Valley said that many creative people were drawn to live in the Adirondacks, and that opportunities in continuing education should be expanded both to meet their needs, and provide more jobs.
"The creative economy is one of the fastest growing sectors," he said. "Education and the arts are opportunities for growth."
School district reform cited
Also, he suggested consolidating school district administrations, as the administrative cost per pupil was exorbitant in Adirondack public schools.
Tom Williams of Hudson said the legislators should develop an educational plan.
Scott Johnson of Lake George, who migrated from Willsboro for more economic opportunity, said that business proprietors and chambers of commerce should "think globally" and work together to market their offerings rather than be territorial or competitive. He operates several businesses in marketing.
"Business owners have to think of the bigger perspective," he said, noting that businesses should aim to stay open year-round to boost local economies.
Legislators seeking to gain influence
Assemblywomen Teresa Sayward (R-Willsboro) and Janet Duprey (R-Peru) and state Sen. Betty Little (R-Queensbury jointly hosted the forum as an outgrowth of their legislative Adirondack Caucus, which is a coalition of lawmakers representing the Adirondacks.
They reported Monday they were seeking to expand their group to include legislators who own second home in the Adirondacks, or are sympathetic to the issues of its residents.
One objective the three cited was their effort to establish an Adirondack economic zone, a targeted zone for development separate from the state's Empire Zone program, which is set to end soon.
The zone could feature special loans, grants, tax credits and other incentives to boost the economy and create jobs, they said.
Sayward said the meeting was constructive.
"Everyone is tired of the same old gripe session," she said. "We know many people are holding down two and three jobs and need help. We heard a lot of good ideas, now we're all going to roll up our sleeves and get to work."
Farber, Chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors - and Fred Monroe of Chestertown, Farber's counterpart in Warren County- both said the meeting was constructive.
"Some excellent concepts were raised," Monroe said. "It seems like everyone is pulling in the right direction."