Monday, January 21, 2008

Our Changing County

My last post mentioned the world is changing at an exponential rate. Those changes combine with some local dynamics to create major challenges for Oneida County. I mentioned reading a local history book, Exploring 200 Years of Oneida County History, published by the Oneida County Historical Society (1998). Not only did I learn that the name Oneida, or Onyotaa:ka, means the People of the Standing Stone (p. 13), but I also learned about the natural economic cycles that have presented themselves over the last two centuries here in the Mohawk Valley that provide an interesting lens through which to view current events.

It seems that Oneida County has been subject to major economic shifts that long-preceded the "loom to boom" era of the 1950s. The first shift occurred when the Erie Canal opened in 1820 that immediately transformed the agricultural region with new transportation routes. Just as the canal and associated stagecoach runs were peaking, the railroads appeared and immediately shifted economic conditions again, while other parts of the local economy began to struggle. From 1840 to 1845, Oneida County lost population - the population of Utica declined 20% (12,000 to 10,000 in 5 years).

Local leaders decided to take action. Three businessmen traveled to New England to get new ideas to identify best practices from successful mills. "Coal could be used to produce steam, they said, and the county had a large supply readily available via the recently completed Chenango Canal that connected the county with the coal fields of Pennsylvania" (p. 31). Within a year, Alfred Munson, Theodore Faxton and others supported this vision and raised enough money to launch Globe Mills, Utica Steam Cotton and Woolen Mills. With these steam-powered mills in place, that significant part of the economy remained strong for decades. The key for me is that they went elsewhere to get new ideas, connected them to local issues and developed a strategic course of action.

Contrary to popular thought, the downturn in the mid-20th century economy here was actually a long, slow decline from 1910 to 1950 that was masked by two world wars. Once again though, the community found ways to reinvent the economic conditions and right itself for a prosperous future. By creating the Industrial Development Corporations, major manufacturing companies were attracted to the area, which in turn, helped attract the Air Force Base in Rome and associated defense industry. Without major world wars to mask the decline, the past fifteen years or so have been very visible, emotional, and discouraging to many.

The recently elected leadership for the County and the cities of Rome and Utica have captured the collective attention of our communities once again to consider, "is this the time things will really change for the better?" If you review the editorials of the past few months, plenty of perspective is being shared with recurring themes of new ideas, collaboration, and action. I've included just a few examples of the many that appear each week in the Observer-Dispatch.
* Ideas for growth - http://www.uticaod.com/viewpoints/x1925665453
* More ideas for growth - http://www.uticaod.com/viewpoints/x546804947
* Jobs - http://www.uticaod.com/viewpoints/x603833016
* Thinking regionally - http://www.uticaod.com/viewpoints/x1295924523

People say, “we've been talking for years in this area and nothing has happened.” Well, all of that talking has created a variety of initiatives that may very well converge in the very near future. However and whenever the next natural economic cycle shifts in an upward, positive direction, MVCC needs to be positioned and prepared to leverage the resources and talents of the College to help invent that collective future for the community. That's my theory - what's yours? Share your thoughts with me at presblog@mvcc.edu.