Upstate New York Seeing an Exodus
By Michael Hill
ALBANY, N.Y. -- Melissa Grothues and John Steele bailed from Buffalo last year. Dissatisfied with their bank jobs, the 25-year-old college graduates sold the house in suburban Amherst, posted ads for possessions on Craigslist and drove cross country to San Diego for a fresh start. "We were ready for a bigger city and to move on. There just weren't many opportunities in Buffalo, job-wise," Grothues said. "It just seemed like day-to-day there, every single person that I worked with would be miserable."
The young couple is hardly alone in exiting upstate New York. More people are leaving the region than moving into it, contributing to a largely stagnant population. The trend has helped lead to New York losing four congressional seats in the last two Census counts and is about to cost the state some prestige. At some point early this year, Florida is expected to surpass New York as the third most populous state, according to projections by The Associated Press.
New York is home to about 19.65 million people, but the state's slow growth is largely fueled by New York City, which has long attracted a large share of international immigrants and young adults, including many from upstate. The story is different north of the Westchester-Rockland county line. The population of the 53 counties of upstate New York was essentially flat, decreasing by 0.1 percent from 2011 to 2012, according to the latest county-level Census estimates available.
Though there have been pockets of growth in the Hudson Valley and some other areas, many upstate areas grapple with a slow but steady loss of people. Why are people leaving upstate New York?
Some complain that taxes in New York are too high. Others, like Grotheus, say there are better job opportunities elsewhere. State and local officials have had mixed success in luring high-tech companies and other new businesses to make up for jobs lost when large employers like Eastman Kodak Co. and Carrier Corp. scaled back or shifted operations elsewhere.
"Part of it is probably due to job loss in the major metropolitan areas like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Binghamton. They all had large employers that had to lay off a lot of people," said Jan Vink of Cornell University's Program on Applied Demographics. Others blame the weather in upstate New York, where winters can be a trying mix of heavy snow and little sun. (Pictured above: a pedestrian in Albany on Jan. 2, 2014.)
Kyle Songer moved to Tampa from the Saratoga Springs area in early 2013, becoming yet another New Yorker to leave behind cold and snow for sun and sand. The 45-year-old instructional designer says moving south was his goal since he fell in love with the beach and surfing while growing up and being a life guard on Long Island.
"I needed to get out to a more relaxing environment and sunshine almost every day," said Songer, who now lives in Clearwater, Fla. "And that's what it's been. It's wonderful."
In recent years, Florida has been the No. 1 destination for people aged 45 and up leaving upstate New York. The top destination for people aged 20 to 44 is New York City and the surrounding downstate region, according to researchers at Cornell who looked at census data from 2006 through 2010. The loss of young college graduates -- like Grothues and Steele -- is especially worrisome to local politicians because it can contribute to a so-called brain drain. The fear is that the loss of educated workers in an area can make it less attractive to new businesses, creating a cycle of decline.
Politicians in both parties have tried for decades to reverse the migration trend, but the latest county figures show only 10 of 53 upstate counties had positive migration numbers over the year period. Top-growing Jefferson County is home to the Army's busy Fort Drum. No. 2 is Saratoga County, where a state-of-the-art computer chip plant that currently employs 2,100 people is still growing.
New York committed $1.2 billion in aid to land the Saratoga County chip plant, where ground was broken in 2009. The aid package illustrates the extraordinary lengths state officials have gone to bring jobs into the region. Supporters of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's policy to create "tax free" zones near college campuses argue they will help stop the brain drain in other parts of the state.
But they also are battling long-term trends that reach beyond upstate New York. Vink, of Cornell University, notes that young people are especially hard to retain. "It's a hard population to keep around," he said. "They are very mobile."
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