Economists at an Adirondack North Country Association conference early this week confirmed what we had observed: that the 14 counties of the North Country weathered the recession better than most of the United States, and that this is mostly because people here tend to be thrifty and tough. Folks here take on less debt and do more work for themselves than most Americans.
That's something to celebrate. Heck, maybe we should even put it in marketing campaigns: "Gritty, prudent locals know how to survive long winters, blackflies and recessions." Then again, do we really want to mention blackflies and winters?
Kidding aside, it might work to some degree. Many Americans are fed up with suburbia or inner cities and want to move somewhere that's more "real," more in touch with human roots. The Adirondacks are real, but they're also beautiful - an attractive combination.
That combination is what has always drawn people here. Yes, many kids raised here can't find work in their field and must leave, but others are always coming here - often taking pay cuts to do so. North Country marketing to tourists should always include an invitation not just to visit but to consider moving here.
But let's also not get too full of pride for our grit and groundedness. Even the most handy and hard-working of Adirondackers still faces many of the same challenges as other Americans, such as the debilitating costs of health care, college tuition, heat and gas, and a shortage of well paying jobs. Our region has relied extraordinarily on public-sector jobs for at least the last four decades, but those are going away rapidly these last two years. These economists mostly focused on the recession, which technically ended in 2009. Considering the layoffs since then from schools, prisons, state agencies and - coming next - counties, the picture may not be as rosy as this ANCA presentation paints it.
Still, we believe North Country people's strength of character, natural grandeur and the relative cheapness of real estate here will carry us through.
We even think it reasonable to imagine that our small towns will thrive ahead of the rest of the country. The U.S. economy is not going back to the way it was, and there may be a major rural movement on the horizon. Think about it: Most jobs that unemployed people used to have aren't coming back, at least not as they were. Urban and suburban places are often expensive and heartless - it's easy to be invisible there. Small, "real" villages like Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and Tupper Lake offer a much-needed sense of community, a sense of being noticed, a chance to start anew and the opportunity to spend a lot of time in nature and refresh one's raw humanity and place in the world.
Those people would bring us their diverse backgrounds and ideas, which would enrich our aforementioned character.
Maybe this idea is far-fetched, but it reminds us of something Peter Fish said Wednesday night at a Adirondack economic forum in Lake Placid: Relatively few Adirondackers live in the towns they grew up in, so let's stop viewing that as a "brain drain." Rather, let's see the opportunity of a "brain gain."