Those of us who constitute the "body politic" of Chautauqua County tend to reflect on our history over relatively short periods of time. Because the usual term of most of our elected officials is two or four years, we use that barometer in evaluating their performance and the state of our community affairs.
Forty years ago, I started a book meant to project longer term trends in the county's development. It was to be a polemic on what it meant to reside in a rural, upstate New York County, and the potential and desirability of living in such a community. But, like most people, I got caught up in the 2-4 year election cycle mentality and never finished the book. So recently, I thought it might be interesting to go back in time 40 years, dust off some of those old thoughts, and look at where we have been going since the early 1970s.
To put things in perspective, I first asked myself what money meant then and what it means now. I went online and found a website which calculated the impact of the cost of living over that time. According to the American Institute for Economic Research, if I were making $10,000 a year in 1970, I would need to be making $56,211 today just to stay even. So think about that - longer periods of time shed light on inflation and on just about everything else.
Then I went to the 1970 census and compared that with the 2010 census. Things hadn't worked out exactly the way I thought they would. In 1970, Chautauqua County had 147,305 residents and I thought it would grow. In 2010, it had 134,368 residents. The population of the county has declined 8 percent since 1970. In contrast, the population of the United States in 1970 was 203,184,000. By 2010 it had risen to 311,591,917. As a friend of mine who lives out-of-town cryptically observed on one occasion: "the long-awaited boom which was to arrive in Chautauqua County never happened."
It is also interesting to note how the population decline in our county was distributed. If you lived in the town of Busti, for example, your population declined by 12 percent. In 1970, the town of Busti had 8,367 residents. In 2010, there were 7,351 people living in Busti. On the other hand, Busti residents did not feel the impact of population decline like the city of Jamestown. In 1970 the population of Jamestown was 39,795, but by 2010 it had declined to 31,146-a decline of 21 percent. The city of Dunkirk also "took it on the chin." Its population fell from 16,855 to 12,563-a decline of 25 percent.
I looked at the town of North Harmony, and they essentially stayed even: 2,264 citizens in 1970 vs. 2,267 forty years later. The same is true with the town of Ellery: in 2010 there were 4,528 people living in that town and back in 1970 there were 4,594. These two towns essentially "held their own."
Were there towns in the county which actually increased in population? There are at least two that I researched: The town of Chautauqua had a population of 4,464 in 2010, up from 4,341 in 1970. The same can be said for Pomfret, which had a population of 14,965 in 2010, up from 13,890 in 1970.
It is interesting to note that these two towns are also the homes of two of our strongest educational anchors - Chautauqua Institution and SUNY Fredonia.
I actually have mixed feelings about population growth. I don't particularly want to live in a growth area, which is usually coincident with being in a large metropolis and associated with urban sprawl. But, the facts are the facts. Here in our small body politic of Chautauqua County we have been losing population while the country has grown by approximately one-third over the past 40 years.
Yet, I still love this place I call home. We know our neighbors, we have life-long friends, we have our lakes and open space, we have a wonderful community in which we raised our family. Yet, we need to be honest. We are all shareholders and stockholders in this place we call Chautauqua County, but there are fewer of us. Where do we want to be in the next 40 years or even 10 years?
Knowing about where we have come from may help us to advance as we go forward. Nothing in life is static. Census statistics are only statistics. But it is probably better to look at them and try to understand them rather than just ignore them. It is good to keep things "in perspective."
A Chautauqua County resident interested in analyzing public policy from a long-term perspective writes these views under the name Hall Elliot.