An economic wake-up call for Franklin County

MALONE – A declining population, shrinking sales tax revenue and blighted buildings are a few of the problems pointing Franklin County toward economic disaster.

That was part of the “wake-up call” Hugh Hill, president of the Malone Chamber of Commerce, gave the Franklin County Board of Legislators Thursday to outline dire circumstances and offer solutions.

“The alternative, if we don’t turn this around, if we don’t start producing revenue and income, is bankruptcy,” Hill told the Enterprise before the presentation.

The data Hill presented was culled from Cornell University’s applied demographics program, the Franklin County manager’s office and the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance.

Hill opened the talk by explaining that the county’s median family income is the second lowest in the state. The county’s demographic profile going forward into the next 25 years, based on U.S. census data, shows a 4 percent population decrease.

Breaking that projection down puts it into perspective: The population of children up to age 15 is projected to decrease by 20 percent, something Hill said the schools should pay attention to. He explained to the board that he will meet with school officials in the upcoming weeks to talk about consolidating resources.

The 15-to-24 age group is also projected to drop by 20 percent, and the 25-to-44 age range, which Hill said is important because they tend to purchase big-ticket items like vehicles and homes, is expected to decline by 11 percent.

“The number of single-family home sales have increased in Essex and Clinton counties, but they’ve decreased substantially in Franklin County,” Hill said. “That’s alarming. They were down 27.2 percent in the first six months of this year.”

Sales tax data show a similar trend, but not everywhere in the North Country. In comparing sales tax collections in the first two quarters of this year with the same period last year, Hill said Clinton and St. Lawrence counties have increased their revenue by about half a million dollars, while Essex County has seen an increase of more than $700,000. Franklin County sales taxes have dropped by $22,990.

“All of those counties have an occupancy tax,” Hill said. “I believe that once the occupancy tax goes into effect here, we can affect those figures quickly.”

Hill explained that overnight visitors are the fastest way to generate sales tax revenue because they bring new money into the county and rarely use services like welfare or police.

“I didn’t create this (presentation) for this board; I created it for all government entities, all civic organizations, all interested people,” Hill said. “This board is not going to be able to solve this problem. The village board of Malone can’t solve this problem. Everybody together is going to have to work on this.”

There is a silver lining to the dark clouds. The population of people 65 and over in Franklin County is projected to increase by 35 percent in the next 25 years. Hill said that age group can support jobs for doctors and other care givers. He also said restaurants tend to benefit from an older demographic.

The economy still needs to be activated for future generations, though.

“The only way we can decrease these figures is to find where we stand a chance to make money,” Hill said. “Energy, agriculture and tourism are the three things we have that can produce income.”

He noted The Wild Center in Tupper Lake, the Malone Golf Club, the Visitor Interpretive Center at Paul Smith’s College, historical tourism and outdoor recreational opportunities as good focal points for tourism. To activate tourism, he said the county needs to increase advertising and continue adding hotel rooms.

“The good news is, in the last few years, 88 hotel rooms have been brought online in Malone, 185 in Akwesasne, about 90 more in two different projects in Malone, and about 86 are coming in Saranac Lake village and about 90 in the Saranac Lake portion in Essex County,” Hill said. “The total rooms in 2014 will increase by 176. That means there are 64,240 extra room nights to generate revenue for this county.”

Legislator Tim Burpoe, D-Saranac Lake, cautioned Hill not to count on the two proposed hotel projects in Saranac Lake.

“As much as I think, and a lot of people think, that both of those projects, the Hotel Saranac and the Lake Flower Hotel, would be something that is complementary, one or both of those might not happen,” Burpoe said. “They need some investment from our government and from private investing to see those things happen.”

Hill said agriculture can lead to tourism, too.

“We have somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million in agricultural products that we produce each year in Franklin County,” Hill said.

Regionally branding those products, like Vermont has done with maple syrup, would help put them on the map.

Renewable energy could also provide an economic boom to the county.

“There’s a lot of energy in the North Country,” Hill said. “There are a lot of vacant and non-vacant agricultural buildings that have room to fit solar panels, we have wind, and we have a lot of hydro facilities. I think we have four hydro facilities in the town of Malone alone, and only one is operational. There’s a lot of potential there.”

Hill said that the only way the county can build upon its resources is to begin building relationships with groups like schools, business development organizations and economic development councils to find out what they do and how they can help. In the coming weeks, he said he will take the first step by giving his presentation to those groups.

“These facts and figures are a demographic tsunami,” said Legislator Gordon Crossman, D-Malone. “It certainly is a wake-up call. We need a call to fight for the North Country.”

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or