North Country economy faces high unemployment, child poverty and housing vacancy rates, comptroller’s report says
Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 6:01 pm

A special report on the North Country’s economy notes a continuing problem with high unemployment, child poverty and housing vacancy rates.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s report, “North Country Region Economic Profile,” contains data on every county in the region, including St. Lawrence County, which the report says faces fiscal stress.

In the region, unemployment rates are higher than in the state as a whole, as are child poverty and housing vacancy rates. Legacy manufacturing and mining industries in the region have declined over recent decades. However, job growth in other sectors, including accommodations, food services and health care services, helped mitigate unemployment after the recent recession, the report says.

Much of the North Country’s economic activity is concentrated in the east and west sides of the region, around Watertown and Plattsburgh. The region -- St. Lawrence, Jefferson, Lewis, Franklin, Clinton and Essex counties -- shares a long section of international border with Canada. It also contains a large portion of the Adirondack Park.

Until the middle of the 20th century, the North Country was almost entirely rural, with very little industrial development.

In St. Lawrence County, federal investments in the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Moses-Saunders Power Dam near Massena, and state investments in SUNY campuses in Potsdam and Canton and correctional facilities in Gouverneur and Ogdensburg in the second half of the 20th Centuries transformed local economies.

Agriculture, health care and outdoor recreational activities are also important economic contributors in St. Lawrence County.

According to the comptroller’s annual fiscal stress reporting, St. Lawrence County is susceptible to fiscal stress. Two school districts, the Clifton-Fine and Ogdensburg districts, are in moderate fiscal stress.

State and local leaders have been trying to boost economic development by investing in and promoting community-based projects to expand tourism, improve workforce talent and spur growth in agriculture and manufacturing.

Leaders have also focused on planning for the future through infrastructure modernization, including upgrading water systems and wastewater treatment facilities, and combating the effects of climate change, according to the comptroller’s report.

The North Country’s three cities – Ogdensburg, Plattsburgh and Watertown – are all near major highways and large neighboring municipalities across the Canadian border, making them regional hubs for retail and industrial activity. Each has an airport in close proximity that provides limited passenger service.

According to data in the report from the U.S. Census Bureau and the 2011-2015 American Community Survey, some notable statistics are:

• St. Lawrence County has the lowest median income in the region at $44,705.

• St. Lawrence County has seen no population growth in decades. Between the census in 2010 and 2016 estimates, the population of the county dropped by 1.6 percent.

• The median age in the county is about 38 years.

• The county's population is 93 percent white, 2.2 percent black, 2.2 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 1 percent Asian. Foreign-born persons comprise 4.4 percent. A little more than 8 percent speak languages other than English at home.

• The high school graduation rate is 88 percent. Those with bachelor’s degrees or higher amount to 22.3 percent of the population.

• The proportion of homes in the county occupied by their owners, 56.7 percent, is the highest in the North Country, except for Clinton County, at 60.5 percent.

• The median value of owner-occupied housing units is $87,600, the lowest in the region.

• Average number of persons per household, 2.4, is in line with the rest of the North Country.

• The child poverty rate is put at 27.5 percent.

• Estimated median property tax bills for homeowners in St. Lawrence County is $3,047, compared with the statewide rate of $8,173. The average effective property tax rate in the county is $34.79 per thousand dollars of assessed valuation, compared to $28.84 statewide.

• Since 1990, the North Country as a whole has had a higher annual unemployment rate than the state in almost every year.

• Much employment in the county is with government or health care. Alcoa Incorporated in Massena is the largest manufacturing company in the region.

The report can be viewed online or downloaded at