Last week I looked at some of the economic and political aspects of the proposed residential and commercial development at Fulton Montgomery Community College. But there is another angle that I believe needs to be explored that has to do with how well suited we are culturally as a region to attract and retain young adults.
According to news reports of the recent unveiling of the project, Dustin Swanger, President of FMCC, cited an experience he had at a local Moe’s restaurant. According to Swanger, he overheard the phrase “finally, there’s a place for us” from a group of young people in line in front of him. And this, apparently was a defining moment that convinced him that the proposed development project was needed. Swanger then added “They didn’t feel like they were welcome or at home elsewhere in our community.”
I don’t know if Swanger actually conversed with the group to find out why they said that or if he just heard it out of context. But I think it is worthwhile to consider whether what Swanger has concluded is really true or not.
One way to start might be to look at the demographics for both Fulton and Montgomery counties. From these we can see that there is definitely a drop in the 18 to 24-year-old range. There are a number of reasons that could explain this drop. The first that comes to mind is that most students graduating with decent grades and who have the financial means to attend college are most likely going to attend out of the area. Even though FMCC is a fine community college, it’s just not going to bring in the same numbers of students as large universities in cities like Schenectady, Albany, Troy or Saratoga Springs.
The other reason is that the region simply doesn’t have much to offer in terms of jobs or nightlife culture that would attract your typical single, career minded college graduates. The aforementioned cities also boast rich downtown experiences including a variety of bars, restaurants and entertainment venues. They are also close to some of the biggest economic development projects in the nation: The Tech Valley Initiative and Global Foundries.
The combination of large universities and diverse offerings of social activities, entertainment and high paying jobs makes the age distribution of Capital Region cities almost look like a mirror image of the Fulton/Montgomery County area. It seems that our region does better with the older age bracket – 25 to 45 who are starting to raise kids and go to bed early and are looking for a lower cost of living.
With all these things considered, I believe that in their hearts, the best and brightest young adults are looking for opportunities – to learn, grow, have fun and connect with others. Provide them with that and they will feel welcomed. Based on the ideas in his paper “Approaches to developing our regions,” I think Swanger gets this. But where I see a disconnect is how he is executing it.
The college campus is certainly a great asset to base economic growth on. However I think we’re going to have to offer students more than what amounts to a mini-mall with a food court to achieve the depth of culture and community that stands a chance of attracting even a small percentage of students away from the larger cities.
Browsing through local media archives, you can find that Swanger has been scouting out possible student housing locations in the Fulton/Montgomery region for years, but for some reason the deals have always fell through. It seems now he’s pronounced judgment on the entire region as “unwelcoming” and is committed to striking out on his own.
I know our area has a reputation for being change resistant. But I also think the majority of people in the cities of Johnstown, Gloversville and Amsterdam see the potential of their downtown areas and want to see revitalization happen. Johnstown has arguably one of the nicest downtown areas in the region, with a variety of small shops and eateries, as well as a very nice park with a stage. Gloversville has a fledgling arts community centered around the Glove Theater, a number of nice eateries including the Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market, and a thriving Farmer’s market. Amsterdam’s downtown is the least developed, but has a thriving billiards venue, book store and pizza shop, and an FMCC extension site at the Riverfront Center. Within short walking distance you also have Riverfront Park and the South Side which has about five bars and/or restaurants and other shops. The new pedestrian bridge, once built and connected to Main St will make it even easier to walk between the two areas.
So if the goal is to provide an experience that is even a fraction as engaging as the ones offered in the larger cities, wouldn’t it make sense to try to connect all the existing assets of the region to make that happen? Maybe the leadership of both the college and the three cities in our region should really give the idea of “cooperation” another look and try to work out a deal that helps both the college and our cities to grow by giving young adults an authentic cultural alternative to the big cities.