Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Does the Economy of Otsego County NY have a Future?

Our local economy has been flat, if not in decline, for decades. We have a 16 percent poverty level, an underestimated unemployment rate of nearly 8 percent, an exodus of young people, rising prices, and a median household income of around $40,000 a year. Not so great.

Our economic planners have focused on luring outside businesses into the area — whether it’s manufacturing or tourism. Since everybody else is trying to do the same thing, often with advantages we lack, it’s no wonder this strategy has failed.

Unfortunately, capital-intensive industries like manufacturing produce fewer and fewer jobs. Armies of well-paid assembly line workers are a thing of the past. Economic developers are chasing a mirage by pursuing such industries, especially in a remote rural county like ours.

Tourism has been maxed out for years. It’s a secondary not a primary industry dependent on discretionary income. If economic hard times intensify, it will be among the first to go.

Other options are also limited: Bassett Healthcare’s incredible expansion is mostly completed. And our colleges do not interact productively with the community. Apart from Hartwick’s nursing program — they produce few students with relevant local skills.

So let’s revisit some fundamentals: Wealth is created through value-added production utilizing existing resources. Our economic boosters, intent on finding a savior from outside, tend to discount the potential of local resources.

And what are those resources? Good water and land, above all, with the potential not only to support a vibrant agriculture of field crops, livestock, fruits, forest products, and specialty crops, but even more the value-added products they make possible.

Such products — from wine and beer and other beverages to yoghurt, cheese, and animal products, to honey, syrup, and furniture products, and whatever inventive imaginations can conceive — are arguably our best path forward.

One model is the Finger Lakes region, once desolate and remote, now crowded with boutique farms, wineries, food tourism and related enterprises.

A more general model is found in the specialized regional products for which France and other European countries are famous. Why not an Otsego cheese or mead or sausage, or a local line of furniture or clothing? Why not grow hops — once a specialty of this area — to supply local breweries, who currently import hops at considerable expense?

And, not least, let’s stop exporting energy dollars and look to local renewable, clean sources to power local businesses and residences, including, where viable and efficient, solar, hydro, wind, and perhaps biofuels. There’s real potential for jobs and energy independence.

Of course, if the exploitation of one resource destroys others, we’re worse off than before. This is why, as our communities have recognized, natural gas doesn’t count as a resource for us. Its harmful environmental, economic, and social side-effects — ignored by the industry and its supporters — cancel out any short-term profits fracking might bring.

Our local advocates for jobs at any cost — like the Citizen Voices group, which refuses to rule out fracking — fail to distinguish between enterprises that will promote the general welfare and those that will harm it.

Keep in mind also that recent successful enterprises in our area — from the Glimmerglass Opera to Brewery Ommegang to Chobani to the Cooperstown Dreams Park — were not rustled up by our local economic planners.

They were unpredictable, spontaneous initiatives by individuals with vision who knew how to execute. And they all built on local resources they recognized and valued.

Finally, the local industries of the future have to be sustainable. They have to utilize renewable local resources. They have to respect the carrying capacity of our area.

The goal here cannot be endless growth. We must strive to make the best of the resources we have, while preserving them, but that will mean, at some point, a steady-state not a growth economy.

Nonetheless, we have the potential to produce real wealth right here at home, with real opportunities for local labor and investors, leaving us better off than we are now.

In short, investing in ourselves, in sustainable local initiatives, not hoping for someone to bail us out, is our real economic future. If you agree, support the Sustainable Otsego candidates in this fall’s elections.

ADRIAN KUZMINSKI is moderator of Sustainable Otsego

This article originally published in The Daily Star, Oneonta, NY, 27 July 2013, under the title: "Does Our Local Economy have a Future?"


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