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Dreadful Census details are no mirage

With the downtown skyline in the background, expansive urban sprawl continues to grow, Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Phoenix. According to data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau Phoenix was the fastest-growing big city in the United States between 2010 and 2020 as it added 163,000 more residents. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Has Chautauqua County finally hit rock bottom when it comes to decades of population declines? Or do we need to look at the most recent U.S. Census numbers in another, more positive way?

Consider this: over the last century, we have seen a population increase of about 12,000 residents. However, the most recent number of 127,657 is still down from the high of 50 years ago in 1970 of 147,305 by about 20,000.

Is this the point where we begin to climb again? There are reasons to be optimistic.

You do not need binoculars to see that there is an abundance of job openings — many of them with above-average wages. Another positive in the county, despite what has happened in Dunkirk in the last three days, is an abundance of water. From Lake Erie to Chautauqua Lake and the smaller in between, these are not only destinations. They are a way of life you cannot find everywhere in the United States.

Additionally, the city of Buffalo and Erie County are finally on an upward trend with the city increasing by 17,000 and the overall county by 35,000 residents.

Growth is always good for neighboring counties.

There is one other reason to be positive: housing sales here have not slowed down over the past year. “If you speak to any real estate agent, they’ll tell you we’re seeing a real estate boom,” state Sen. George Borrello said in a recent interview.

A part of this is due to those moving here wanting a more rural lifestyle — some of that tied to the pandemic, and another is a housing market that continues to be very affordable when compared to other areas of the state.

Besides losing 7,248 residents — or 5.4% of our population over a 10-year period, there were other notable trends, according to recently released U.S. Census numbers. Our county’s diversity continues to see growth. Of the 62 state counties, we’re No. 31 with a diversity index of 29.9%, More than 83% of the population is white with 9.2% Hispanic or Latino.

Our diversity index here, however, lags when compared to the rest of the United States. The Census defines the indicator as the chance that two people chosen at random will be from different racial and ethinic groups. This is 61.1% on a national level, up from 54.9%, on a national level.”

Poverty rates also remain a concern for just about every location. In Dunkirk, the rate is one out of every four. Jamestown is a bit higher with three out of every 10 people. Fredonia has a rate of 24% with the overall county being at 16.3%.

Despite these disconcerting numbers, there is very little evidence elected officials are engaged in addressing the decline. During this month’s County Legislature meeting, decreasing numbers were not a topic even though Chautauqua was one of the largest losers in population in Western New York.

Worse, there seems to be little discussion about how to fix the downturn. “There are several pieces to this,” County Executive PJ Wendel said in a recent interview. “There’s no silver bullet as to why people left and there isn’t one to bring people back either. We have to ask ourselves if we’re business-friendly statewide.”

But that’s not the right attitude. New York state, overall, grew population to more than 20 million residents thanks to metropolitan areas such as New York City and Buffalo. What local leaders here never like to admit is the local tax burden remains far too high as we all subsidize 18 school districts, 27 towns, 13 villages and two cities.

Even in a pandemic when much of the region and some businesses were shut down or slowed, many municipalities have raised taxes without considering consequences. That hits the lower income residents and those who are retired the hardest.

Besides, what we really want to see is some fire in the belly over this topic. Consider a statement made in neighboring Warren County, Pa., which lost 7.7% of residents over the same 10 years and dropped from more than 40,000 to 38,587: “Quite frankly, this is the most important issue before us,” said Warren City Councilman and Vice President John Wortman in August. “Not trying new ideas and policies is unacceptable.”

No matter how you slice it, a decade of decline locally has come with Republican leadership overseeing and calling many of the shots in our county — in the executive role and Legislature. The county Industrial Development Agency’s work has been solid in the last two years, but we still need a common vision from all of our leaders.

One that especially emphasizes growth.

John D’Agostino is the editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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