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Back to Appalachia

June 25, 2010

Four years ago, Eliot Spitzer was speaking to a business group and offered the observation that parts of upstate New York were “like Appalachia.” 

The comment drew an immediate rebuke from Spitzer’s opponents, who said he was being “insensitive and insulting.”   

And they were right. The comment was indeed an insult – to Appalachians. 

When reporters and others subsequently looked into the matter, they found that by most economic standards, the Appalachian region had performed significantly better than upstate New York. It was a growing region; the upstate was shrinking. 

Fast forward to 2010. Has anything been done about the situation? 

Spitzer tried a few things. He appointed a successful economic development pro from Pennsylvania as his upstate economic czar. The plan was for Don Gunderson to focus full-time on the problem. Unfortunately, Gunderson became involved in bitter turf battles with his downstate counterpart, and little was achieved. 

Another thing Spitzer did was commit himself to delivering a “State of the Upstate” speech each year. Yeah, it was just a speech, but it was good thing. In this regard, when a governor is personally on the hook for addressing a problem, you know that he’s going to insist on there being some kind of progress. 

Alas, Spitzer’s took his eye off the ball. He became obsessed with his adversaries and issues like drivers licenses for illegal aliens. He still talked the talk, but it didn’t seem as though he was really focused on the matter. 

Enter Paterson. One of the first things he did when he took office was abandon the “upstate is a priority” thing. People in the administration insist that it was Paterson himself who killed the project because he was against “regional approaches.” 

Whether this is true or not, we don’t know. (When was Paterson decisive about anything?) What we do know is that nobody objected when the administration’s upstate agenda was dropped. And we mean nobody. Not upstate lawmakers of either party. Not the economic development pros. Not the local pols. Not even editorial boards. To the best of our knowledge, nobody made a stink about it. 

In everyone’s defense, there was a lot going on during that time frame — scandals, a fiscal crisis, coups, etc. But we would have thought that someone somewhere would have said something. 

And so here we are. Upstate continues to lose jobs – more than 200,000 non-farm jobs since 2009 – and, again, nobody seems to care. Does anyone have a creative idea for addressing this problem? 

Appalachia, for a long time, was called “America’s forgotten region.” It would seem that Upstate New York now has the better claim to that moniker.

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