A robust upstate economy? Claims do not hold up

by E.J. McMahon |  | Press & Sun-Bulletin

The Southern Tier has been among the most poorly performing regions of a weak upstate New York economy over the past four years. But you sure wouldn’t know it from listening to Howard Zemsky, the Buffalo developer recently named by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to chair the Empire State Development Corp.

“In recent years, the Southern Tier has benefited tremendously from Cuomo’s determination to revitalize the upstate economy,” Zemsky wrote in a recent Guest Viewpoint. “From gaining thousands of new private-sector jobs and hundreds of new businesses, to the significant decline in unemployment in all eight counties—the governor’s approach to economic development is paying big dividends for the Southern Tier.”

This much is actually true: The eight counties of the Southern Tier did collectively gain “thousands” of jobs over the past four years—6,700, to be exact, between December 2010 and December 2014. However, the Southern Tier’s growth rate of 2.9 percent across this four-year period was far below the state and national averages of 6.9 percent and 9.4 percent, respectively.

Two-thirds of the region’s paltry gains were concentrated in Tompkins County. The rest of the Southern Tier added only 2,300 jobs, a total increase of just 1.3 percent during Cuomo’s first term. Employment in Binghamton was up by less than 1 percent, while the Elmira area actually lost jobs. And despite Ithaca’s Cornell-led boom, the Southern Tier as a whole remains nearly 12,000 jobs below its employment level as of December 2000.

Zemsky’s reference to a falling unemployment rate is even more misleading. In fact, the only reason for the unemployment rate drop in the Southern Tier, as in most of upstate New York, has been a sharp decrease in the labor force — that is, in the number of people still looking for work. Resident employment, as measured by the same Labor Department survey, is actually lower than it was four years ago.

Missing from Zemsky’s article was any reference to Cuomo’s ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Yet this is where the Southern Tier really stands apart: No other region of upstate New York stands to gain more from shale gas production, and no region has lost more from Cuomo’s refusal to allow the state to join the nation’s shale energy revolution.

So, what’s the Cuomo revival plan? Zemsky said Cuomo’s proposed new $1.5 billion pool of “upstate revitalization” funding could give the Southern Tier a shot at ”the same success” enjoyed by Buffalo. But the latest job data show little evidence of a dramatic turnaround in Buffalo, either.

In sum, far from having “benefited tremendously” or reaped “big dividends” from state policies in the past four years, the Southern Tier has fallen further behind the state and nation as a whole.

The economic decline of the region was long in the making and won’t be reversed overnight. But it would help if New York State’s economic development czar were willing to face the hard facts, rather than glossing them over with self-deluding PR spin.

- E.J. McMahon is the Research Director at the Empire Center for Public Policy.