John F. Sheehan, Adirondack Council
In designing the Regional Economic Development Councils (REDCs) around the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo did what all other governors before him had done. He split the Adirondack Park into several pieces, connecting each of those pieces to a city and region outside of the park’s borders. This is disheartening. The Adirondack Park is a distinct region with unique economic needs and opportunities.
The Adirondack Park has no cities. It has little in common with Plattsburgh and Watertown (North Country REDC), Utica (Mohawk Valley REDC) or the Albany/Saratoga region (Capital REDC). Strategies that make sense in a city don’t usually translate well in our rural and remote communities.
That is why the Adirondack Council — the park’s largest environmental organization — co-founded the Common Ground Alliance. It is also why the Council collaborated with the Adirondack Community Housing Trust and partially funded the third volume of an outstanding local community-planning effort known as Hamlets III, Planning for Smart Growth & Expansion of Hamlets in the Adirondack Park. We are also asking for the state to create a dedicated fund to assist local economic development planning efforts in Adirondack towns.
We also supported the Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) plan to seek a single U.S. Census Bureau region for the Adirondack Park. Local, state and federal officials would have a much clearer picture of the park’s economic cycles and demographic changes than we do now. Because the park boundary crosses town and county lines, the census requires interpretation and often leads to disagreement about the results.
Having a single entity keeping track of what works and what doesn’t would eliminate false starts in Adirondack communities facing similar challenges. They don’t get that chance when the park gets paired with outside cities.
We are confident that the Adirondack Park leaders appointed to the three Regional Economic Development Councils will represent the park well. The REDC’s will see that there is merit in focusing on universal high-speed Internet access, renewable and biomass energy, small businesses incentives, nature-based tourism and recreation development in the Adirondacks. We expect they will seek help for “gateway communities” to use the park’s huge amounts of public lands, wild waterways and public trails as an economic advantage.
Still, those representatives will have to struggle to be heard in a group whose primary focus is on more urban areas outside the Adirondack Park. Plans to create 10 jobs might have the same beneficial impact on an Adirondack town as 100 new jobs in a nearby city. Which project is more likely to get the REDC’s attention?
Long term, it would be better for the Adirondacks — both economically and environmentally — if there was one, state-funded economic development plan developed just for the Adirondack Park. It is our hope that Gov. Cuomo will recognize the Adirondack Park’s uncommon circumstances and develop a new, game-changing approach. There are many logical and financially beneficial changes he can make by rearranging some of his own agencies and refocusing their energies on vital issues.
There is no reason, for example, for the Department of Environmental Conservation to manage the Adirondack Forest Preserve from two regional offices, one of which is not even located inside the park. This leads to inconsistent policies and confusion about why DEC exercises its discretion differently on the eastern two-thirds of the park’s public lands (Region 5) than it does in the western one-third (Region 6).
The Adirondack Park Agency is the only state agency whose sole focus is on the park. Yet the agencies that were supposed to be integrated into the APA’s work — DEC, the Department of State and Empire State Development Corporation — don’t do the same. Each should have a full time effort focused on the Adirondack Park, perhaps in the same office complex as the Park Agency. They already occupy seats as agency designees to the APA. Isn’t it time to consider a one-stop-shop approach to achieve a more cost-effective and efficient delivery of state goods and services?
In fact, it makes sense to consider combining the work of all four into a single Adirondack Park Administration. Because the park is larger than most New England states, it should have branch offices spread around the park. This would curb the need for residents to travel long distances to attend public meetings, apply for permits or seek assistance with community-development grants and business loans.
The Park Agency/Administration would finally be able to serve the unique economic needs of the Adirondack Park communities. It would support sustainable, compatible economic development while protecting water quality, wildlife and the park’s wild character.
John F. Sheehan is the director of communications for the Adirondack Council.