COLUMN: Balance needed when it comes to economic development

Over the weekend, about 30 residents showed up to a comprehensive plan workshop in southern Seneca County. The meeting was publicized through the usual channels and featured representatives from all parties involved: the Town of Ovid, MRB Group and Environmental Design & Research.

The workshop provided hard data, backing up the narrative verbalized by many throughout the region. The population in communities like Ovid, in particular, and Seneca County, in general, is aging. Young people are leaving and with them so is the opportunity for viable or sustainable growth.

A comprehensive plan, as dry and uninteresting as it may sound, can accomplish a great deal for a community. As the presenters pointed out on Saturday, it provides the framework for the community to move forward and solidifies funding opportunities for smaller communities with less to leverage and greater expenses.

It’s important stuff when considering state and federal grant opportunities. A good comprehensive plan isn’t the silver bullet, either, but locally we have to look no further than Geneva to see the benefit of good, thorough planning when it comes to winning those vital state dollars.

In listening to people speak at various meetings, however, there seems to be a disconnect between expectation and reality. A comprehensive plan is ultimately set in place to set the rules of engagement on future development. Whether that encompasses all types of economic development or looks at particular pieces of it, the goal is to better the community through strategic planning.

The disconnect seems to be where some people believe that by planning, all of these issues — an aging population, a lack of commercial development, few reasons for young people to stay — will be solved.

You can have the best plan in the world, but if execution falls shy of expectation, then the results will not be in line with them.

For example, after the first part of the Ovid workshop, residents had the chance to write down their thoughts on some of the issues they think are important or ones that they would like to see addressed in a large, strategic plan.

Among those listed were: Pollution, harmful algae blooms, landfilling, and inflated cost of municipal operation.

Other troubling pieces of data working against these communities include:

• Only 17 percent of housing in Seneca County was built after 1990;

• Nearly 36 percent of that housing was built before 1939;

• Seneca County is starved for 30- to 49-year-olds;

Muddying the waters even more, many of the folks who say being a small, rural community is a strength also will say that there needs to be more large-scale employment opportunities.

If those opportunities presented themselves, would those interests fall in line with what people consider their community’s value or strength?

In Seneca County, Tyre, Waterloo and Seneca Falls have had this type of debate.

Look around the region — like in Trumansburg, where an affordable housing project has created an immense stir. Residents argue that the project will inhibit local life and bring harm in the form of drugs, crime, etc. It’s not an unusual reaction when “affordable housing” is discussed, but affordable housing has to be considered when most of the remaining population is either aging, living on menial wages or a combination of the two.

Seneca County, like many other communities in Upstate New York, needs the leadership to strike the right balance. Agricultural, commercial and industrial development has to be sought, and housing opportunities to fit each of these types of development is necessary.

It might be a unique set of challenges, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be corrected.

This column originally appeared in the Finger Lakes Times on Oct. 10, 2017.

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