New York State, and upstate in particular, was suffering from a brain drain. Our best and brightest, particularly our young people, were leaving in droves. Census reports showed that between 1990 and 2004, the number of 25-to-34 year-olds in the upstate region (the 52 counties north of Rockland and Putnam), fell by more than 25 percent. A study done by SUNY at Buffalo cited statistics showing the Rochester region losing nearly 30 percent of its young adult population between 1990 and 2005.
The loss has been part of an overall population decline for the region, blamed on a variety of reasons. A report issued last year by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Buffalo branch said it was not so much a brain drain as an insufficient "brain gain." While Upstate New York experienced outmigration of its college-educated residents that was greater than some other regions, the rate was far less than what other regions were experiencing. Causing the decline, the study argued, was a lack of college-educated people moving in to upstate. In fact, it said that if upstate were a state, we would have the nation's lowest rate of college-educated people moving here.
This report and others cited a host of reasons-bad weather, a need for more exciting nightlife. But at the root of it all was the economy. People, particularly recent college graduates and other young adults, were leaving upstate for other regions that offered better prospects for jobs and lower taxes.
None of this came as a huge surprise. Just think of the families you know and how many of them have children and grandchildren still in the area.
But the headlines sparked some action. You may remember that Silda Spitzer, then the state's First Lady, began an "I Live New York" campaign aimed at attracting and retaining young adults. Asked recently why Gov. David Paterson hasn't continued the campaign since becoming governor, his spokesman told a regional newspaper that the governor's primary approach to addressing brain drain was to work on reducing property taxes that discourage people from settling in New York.
The governor is right on that one. Greater Rochester, like the rest of upstate, has much to offer in terms of quality of life. We have the Finger Lakes, Lake Ontario, the wineries, cultural institutions, beautiful parks, affordable housing, retail offerings, excellent public schools, the list goes on. But what's needed to reverse this trend of declining population is more jobs-high-quality jobs that pay well and have the potential for personal and economic growth.
Job growth can't happen until companies that are already here can afford to expand and companies located elsewhere see an economic advantage to doing business here. Right now they don't, because New York has some of the highest business and personal taxes in the nation. When companies pay high taxes, they can't make investments in new product lines or new equipment, those operational moves that result in increased employment. And while our economic development agencies are working hard to attract new business here, they are at a competitive disadvantage to their peers from other regions where taxes are significantly lower.
Making New York a more business-friendly, affordable place to live, work, own a business and raise a family has been the central mission of Unshackle Upstate, which was formed two years ago to highlight our struggling economy and find legislative solutions. We're making progress, but it won't happen overnight.
In the meantime, I'd like to make a suggestion to all the employers in our region. When you have job openings, please give serious consideration to recruiting at our local colleges. Hiring young people who want to be in Rochester, who want to live in upstate, is one of the best ways I know to attract and retain the best and the brightest our region has to offer. And in doing so, we plant the seed for a brighter future.
Sandra Parker is president and CEO of the Rochester Business Alliance Inc. Contact her at SandyP@RBAlliance.com.
09/19/2008 (C) Rochester Business Journal