Rob Gurwitt is a GOVERNING contributor.E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rich newcomers can do a lot for a small mountain town. They also can do a lot to it.
There are people in Johnsburg, New York, who still won't set foot in the Tannery Pond Community Center, even though it was built in part for them. The local theater production of a play about Picasso and Einstein didn't seduce them. The monthly gallery shows hold no interest. Nor do the movies, chorale concerts or dance performances -- not for the working-class people in this small town in New York's North Country, nestled in the Adirondacks, four hours north of Manhattan.
These are people who celebrate weddings and family reunions at more familiar venues in the various tiny hamlets that make up the town of Johnsburg. They gather at the small, cinder-block community center up the road in the village of Sodom, or the old Odd-Fellows Hall, now the Wevertown community center. "Tannery Pond is not a place that many locals would look to hold a family gathering; it's not a community center in that sense," says Brother James Posluszny, a Catholic priest who runs North Country Ministry, a social-service agency in the region. "The Wevertown center is theirs. The Sodom center is theirs. Tannery Pond is not."
What locals frequently choose to mention about Tannery Pond, in fact, is that it carries a $55,000-a-year price tag for the town to operate -- "It was a nice gesture, but it's going to cost us money the rest of our lives," says Richard Stewart, who was born nearby in the house he still lives in.
This wasn't what Woody and Elise Widlund had in mind when they presented Johnsburg with its spacious, tea-colored community building in 2002. The Widlunds retired there from New Jersey, where they had owned a fragrance and flavor manufacturer, and they wanted the Adirondack town with its far-flung hamlets to have a central space for locals to gather and for artists to find a home. "In our travels across the country," explains Elise Widlund, "we find consistently that towns with an art component, whether theater or music or the visual arts, those are the towns that look healthy."
The Tannery Pond center certainly looks healthy. It sits in the hamlet of North Creek, right across from Johnsburg Town Hall, on the spot where a 19th-century tannery once stood. It's a welcoming space that towns four or five times Johnsburg's size -- which is 2,500 year-round residents -- would envy. And there are certainly those who are glad it's there. "It has helped to awaken the town," says Lyle Dye, a retired theater director and drama professor who moved to North Creek 13 years ago. The center has become a focal point for a large and growing slice of Johnsburg: people who moved there for its mountains, forests and proximity to the Hudson River, and are delighted to have some cultural life in what has always been a remote, hard-knock kind of place.
To say that Johnsburg is split down the middle between gentrifiers and rustics would be an exaggeration. But there's certainly no shortage of "us and them" to go around. There are the skiers and there are the snowmobilers. There are those who are drawn to North Creek's new wine bar and tapas restaurant, BarVino, and those who like the cheeseburgers and subs at Smith's on Main Street. And these days, more than anything else, there are the people pressing for North Creek to grow -- to become "the next Stowe, Vermont," as one of them puts it -- and the people who worry that if it does, there'll be no place left for them. Finding the right balance between growth and tradition is the number one issue for local government right now in much of the Adirondack region -- and especially in Johnsburg.
That is because Johnsburg, and North Creek in particular, seem poised to attract a lot more people from outside, along with their money and their refined tastes. Just across the state highway from North Creek's business district sits the hamlet's old Ski Bowl, a tame set of descents by today's standards. But the Ski Bowl is backed up by ridgelines that lead to the far more popular Gore Mountain ski area, which drew about 250,000 skiers this past season. Gore is owned and run by New York State's Olympic Regional Development Authority, and if current plans hold, next year a ski lift and new trails will allow skiers to start from the top at Gore and ski down to North Creek.
In anticipation, new housing developments are in various stages of planning, including one right by the North Creek Ski Bowl that would replace a large patch of forest with a hotel, townhouses, restaurants, a members-only lodge, an equestrian center and a golf course. Entrepreneurs have opened up or taken over and renovated businesses on Main Street, aiming them at visitors and more cosmopolitan residents. The prospect of all this has locals talking about "workforce housing" and questioning how long it will still be available. "This is an embryonic Aspen," says Frank Boos, the housing coordinator for North Country Ministry. "If things go on as they are, they're going to have to bus workers in."
Johnsburg is hardly emblematic of all of rural America -- there are immense swaths of the countryside that are not becoming playgrounds for urbanites or retirement havens for baby boomers cashing out on metropolitan life. Census numbers don't show anything like a massive migration of rich people into old blue-collar mountain villages.
But specific slices of rural America are another story. The upscale remodeling of towns in the Colorado Rockies, or parts of western Montana, are by now old stories. And similar transformations have been taking place in every corner of the country -- from coastal Maine retirement meccas to Washington State's secluded Methow Valley, which has emerged as a magnet for cross-country skiers.
The trend has been driven by a confluence of factors. One is a bulge of retirees and pre-retirees, from both the baby-boom generation and its predecessor, possessed -- at least, until these hard times -- of wealth generated in the stock market and real estate in the 1980s and 1990s. Nina Glasgow and David Brown, development sociologists at Cornell University, found that between 1995 and 2000, 274 non-metropolitan counties saw net in-migration rates of 15 percent or higher among people age 60 or older. Since then, says Brown, there appears to have been "weak" migration overall from cities to the countryside -- and recent Census numbers suggest it pretty much came to a halt in 2007 and 2008. Still, says Peter Nelson, a geographer at Middlebury College who studies rural migration, "right now the oldest boomers are in their early 60s, and that's a time period when the probability of moving from the city to the countryside increases. So even though the total percentage of people making the move might decrease, there's a larger denominator of people who could potentially make the move." That is why, even though the current recession has slowed the purchase of rural vacation and retirement homes, few experts doubt that it will pick up once the economy recovers.
Along with the retirees and vacationers, these rural enclaves have been attracting members of what author Richard Florida calls "the creative class." David McGranahan and Tim Wojan, of the Economic Research Service (ERS) at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have studied so-called "rural artistic havens," places that appeal to artists and generate arts-related employment. In the 1990 census, they found 93 "established" havens of this kind. In 2000, they identified another 111 "emerging" havens, including relatively little-known areas such as Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, the home of Mississippi State University; and Ravalli County, Montana, near the university town of Missoula. To some extent, the arts trend and the retirement trend are related. "There is a mutually reinforcing arrangement," says Wojan, "between having a thriving arts community and being a place that is likely to attract retirees who are in-migrants -- that artists are a 'consumption amenity' that people are looking for in a retirement destination."
An equally potent piece of the "creative class" migration has been "footloose" businesses. "Their owners and managers don't have to be on the factory floor or in the city," says Ray Rasker, of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana, "but can relocate for quality of life. As Rasker says, "you can go hang out in Bozeman coffee shops and hear people say, 'Oh, I work for Microsoft' or 'Oh, we just got a billion-dollar investment from a Spanish firm and are investing in wind farms.'"
Rural growth, of course, is not the same as rural gentrification, which tends to be defined as the displacement of a community's lower-income residents by newcomers with money. Yet the two can go hand in hand, as has happened in a dramatic way in resort communities such as Aspen, and in some retirement havens -- Michigan's Leelanau County, for instance. It is a rapidly increasing worry in the Adirondacks.
Ron Vanselow, who serves on the Johnsburg town council, has a vision of what a gentrified future in his area might look like. A few miles outside North Creek is a trailer park, a set of blocky single-wides, most of them with pickups parked nearby. Gesturing toward it, Vanselow recalls a vacation to Cape Cod, where, because the issue was on his mind, he made a game of trying to find the kind of housing that downscale Cape Codders might still be able to afford. Finally, spying a trailer park, he figured he'd found the spot -- until his wife pointed out the Lexuses and Cadillac Escalades parked next to the trailers. "They'd even bought the trailer park!" he says. "That's what I don't want to see happen here."
One of the small ironies of the Adirondacks is that, despite their long history of settlement, scenic beauty and relative proximity to the great population centers of the Northeast, they were discovered late. "Even 10 years ago, people were still talking about the Adirondacks as forgotten land, though the needle was quivering at that point," says Brian Mann, a reporter for North Country Public Radio who has been chronicling the impact of growth on the region. "The gentrification that happened out west really bypassed the Adirondacks."
Not too long ago, blue-collar locals could afford a house on a lake in the Adirondacks. That idea seems outlandish now, as lakefront real estate has shifted dramatically to second-home owners. In the late 1990s, the trend moved to village cores, a development that accelerated after September 11, 2001, when suddenly it seemed as if everyone in the New York metropolitan area wanted a piece of the Adirondacks to escape to. "The checks they were writing," says Alan Hipps, director of the Essex County Housing Department, "were more than the mortgages local people could afford."
A second-home boom can be unsettling to locals in more than one way. Parts of many Adirondack villages are empty now except during the summer; churches and schools have closed, and stores that once remained open all year have become seasonal. "A lot of people from Downstate and New Jersey and Connecticut started buying houses along Main Street that had been occupied by a schoolteacher or someone working at the highway department," says Tom Both, the former town supervisor of Keene, an Adirondack town about a half-hour east of Lake Placid. "I remember sitting in town hall one night looking out the window, and there were seven houses in a row with the lights out. Our K-12 school population went from 215 kids in 2000 down to 165."
Unlike most of the Adirondacks, which get very quiet from late fall until spring, Johnsburg has a year-round economy. The town sits near the Hudson River Gorge, a popular rafting and kayaking spot, and there is a knot of rafting outfitters in its northernmost hamlet, North River. A young person interested in stitching together a living can work the river in the summer, then move to one of the ski areas in the winter. A local garnet mine -- which produces stones used in industrial abrasives -- remains one of the largest employers in the area. And old-time families have long known how to get by on the margins. As Brother Posluszny, of the North Country Ministry, describes it, "Many local people have had subsistence incomes for generations: They say 'I do some plowing, some hunting, a job in the summer. Or I work for this company and get a 13-hour week in winter and four hours in summer, and I get by cutting wood on the side.' They're very good at making do."
But it's far from clear how long they can continue to make do, given the rising cost of living in the area. Bouncing along the thaw-rutted mud of Back to Sodom Road, councilman Ron Vanselow gestures through the trees at a magnificent new log home -- three generous stories, a porch columned with prodigious trunks, the whole thing stained an aggressively shiny reddish-brown. "This road used to look like the opening credits for the Andy Griffith Show, with kids walking down it carrying their fishing poles," he says. "But does that look like the kind of place a ski-lift operator can live?" His concern is echoed by Marco Schmale, who moved to North River in 1987 as a rafting guide and now runs one of the river outfitters. "When I came up here and started, I could buy a house, and I see people now and they can't do it," he says. "They're 25, they're a full-time river guide, in the winter they're on the ski patrol, they're making a good amount of money, but it's still not enough to get married and buy a house."
Which is why there is both trepidation and excitement about the coming expansion of Gore and the revitalization of North Creek's Main Street. The past year has seen two defunct Main Street hotels renovated and new restaurants open, including BarVino, which has succeeded far beyond many locals' expectations by drawing from the ski crowd, retirees and even the river guides and ski-lift operators. There are Saturday nights in winter, now, when it's hard to find a parking spot along Main Street. The wine bar's owner, Mike Bowers, moved up from Delaware two years ago, and he sees great opportunity in the area. "North Creek has a river, a beautiful mountain, beautiful lakes, it's four hours from New York City and a couple from Montréal," he says. "The basic bones are good."
The question for town officials, of course, is whether they can keep the new development from forcing out current residents. Sterling Goodspeed, who as Johnsburg's town supervisor essentially serves as mayor, is confident they can. "We have the opportunity," he says, "to have sustained economic growth that is consistent with our environmental interests and in keeping with our history." To that end, the town government is looking into an inclusionary zoning ordinance, trying to shore up its fire and water districts, and placing great hope in the Adirondack Community Housing Trust, which aims to secure and protect affordable housing.
In this regard, it's possible that the recession will work to Johnsburg's advantage. "Unemployment and the food pantry are not solutions to gentrification," says Ron Vanselow, "but I think we've dodged a bullet. We have some breathing room because of the economy."
Still, once development and gentrification take on their own dynamic, it is very difficult to hold on to what existed before, as plenty of gentrified towns from Mendocino to Vail have discovered. Small-town governments in particular are easily overwhelmed by the pressures that come with growth and gentrification. As optimistic as Johnsburg's leaders are that they can avoid an unpleasant fate, the record isn't especially promising.
"For the most part, I don't think the communities in our part of the world were prepared for the growth that's occurred over the last couple of decades," says Dennis Glick, who runs the Bozeman, Montana, office of a nonprofit aimed at helping communities in the West manage growth pressure. "Land use planning was not something that governments took seriously or had the resources to do effectively. As one person I know said, 'We went fishing for a little growth and ended up catching a great white shark.'"