Gov. Andrew Cuomo: Get your butt out of Albany and go see how the rest of your state lives. Or you might not have much of a state left.
One memory that stands out from my 1970s tenure as a reporter in New York’s Southern Tier is that of an economy stuck in reverse. Broome County centers around Binghamton, a city of 47,000 that has lost nearly half its population since the 1950s.
Binghamton was a hotbed of business development dating back to the early 1900s when thousands of immigrants got off the boats asking “Which way EJ?” then headed upstate to “The Home of the Square Deal” in nearby Endicott and Johnson City to the once-famous Endicott-Johnson shoe company. Thomas Watson started IBM in Endicott where it kept its largest facilities until the early 1990s. Edwin Link’s flight simulator helped put Binghamton on the map and GE also had a formidable presence.
By the time I came along Binghamton was struggling to retain its few remaining commercial and industrial businesses. People left because there were no jobs.
West on Route 17 we skirt by Johnson City and Endicott which have also been in long decline. Keeping my Beetle out of the deep ruts made driving in JC like traveling in war zone, especially along streets that led to the huge, rotting shoe factories and warehouses where tens of thousands worked until Japan and China stole the business with cheap imports.
Then we move into Endicott which was not only the headquarters of EJ but a key center for IBM’s manufacturing which was still going strong into the 1980s when it employed 22,000 workers in a six-block-long building in Endicott and in two other communities. The facilities decayed over time and rather than reinvest locally, IBM moved its manufacturing, sold its properties and has just 600 people there. Endicott isn’t known for much today except for its colorful carousels.
Driving west into Tioga County, we visit Owego, another quaint little town that time has forgotten. A study found that the county was among the worst in the nation suffering from an exodus of young people unable to find jobs.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The Southern Tier sits atop the Marcellus Shale. This world-class reservoir has been good to Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia which were also in terminal decline until they realized the enormous benefits that could be reaped with well-paying jobs, lease royalties and tax revenues, all thanks to natural gas.
They moved quickly and did not throw unnecessary impediments in the path of the gas industry. What problems have arisen are usually worked out quickly and pale in comparison to the benefits.
Gov. Cuomo has his eye on the White House, some observers say, and won’t risk alienating his base. So on Dec. 18 he announced a statewide ban on fracking, citing health and environmental concerns. That same day, Southern Tier residents felt the knife twist even further when the state rejected two proposals to locate a casino in the region.
Cuomo naturally deflected any responsibility for either decision. “I don’t know why they (casino board) made what decisions they made. But it wasn’t my place to interfere…”
Even more profound was the reasoning behind the fracking ban: that “absolute scientific certainty regarding the relative contributions of positive and negative impacts of [fracking] on public health is unlikely to ever be attained.”
The report came from acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who added “Would I let my child play in the school field nearby, or my family drink the water from the tap or grow vegetables in the soil? My answer is no.”
Turns out Zucker is single, but Cuomo insisted that he couldn’t overrule that decision either.
So, if you live in the Southern Tier where the weather is just as gloomy as the economy, what can one do? Communities watch with envy as their neighbors to the south reap the benefits of fracking. They’re questioning whether secession is possible, realizing that natural gas is their only salvation.
State Sen. Thomas Libous has been asking constituents their views on secession in an online survey. The Upstate New York Towns Association, established in 2013 to represent Southern Tier communities upset by downstate’s political influence, will review those results before deciding its next action.
At the very least, they want officials of the state with the highest taxes in the nation to start paying them some real attention. As one frustrated local resident was quoted, “It’s better to save local economies than leave them to die based on what might happen.”