Finger Lakes’ tale told in the numbers

Mike Murphy

Daily Messenger

Aug 30, 2017

The Finger Lakes region appears to be doing things right when it comes to focusing economic attention on higher education, high-tech jobs and — in the Ontario County area in particular — food- and drink-related industries.

But, poverty-stricken pockets throughout the nine-county region persist and young people are continuing to leave the state, which will continue to pose challenges for government and business leaders.

That’s the gist of a special economic profile of the Finger Lakes region, which was unveiled Wednesday during a visit to Canandaigua by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

“You have many positives to build on, and some are unique to this area,” DiNapoli said, shortly after a tour of the New York Wine and Culinary Center.

Among the positives he noted: competitive values of housing in the region, colleges and universities that produce skilled workers in high-demand areas, and food manufacturing.

The report notes 21 percent of the state’s farmland is in the Finger Lakes region.

“Food manufacturing is a growth area,” DiNapoli said. “Certainly this being a center and knowing the importance of the wine industry, breweries and distilleries, it certainly validates and makes sense to build on that as a regional strength.”

On the downside, DiNapoli also noted the region is faced with many challenges, particularly as it relates to poverty.

Median household income in each of the nine counties that make up the Finger Lakes region is lower than the state average, according to the report.

Ontario County had the highest in the region, at $57,416 in 2015. That compares to $52,553 in Monroe County, $49,510 in Yates County, $50,798 in Wayne County and $51,734 in Livingston County.

The median household income of just over $40,000 in the city of Canandaigua is below the state average of $59,269 and also is lower than many Monroe County towns, but higher than the cities of Geneva, Batavia and Rochester.

Growth in the median income has slowed in recent years, according to the report.

DiNapoli added the region has several pockets of urban and rural poverty. For instance, the city of Geneva has one of the highest child poverty rates at 33.3 percent, according to the report. The state rate is 22.2 percent.

Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, said the report serves as a blueprint for where the region is today, but also where it needs to go tomorrow.

Certainly, a focus needs to be on creating better economic opportunities, Kolb said.

“Regionally, poverty rates are still way too high,” Kolb said.

DiNapoli said the region’s unemployment rate has declined from about 8 percent in the years immediately following the recession of 2008-09, to 4.9 percent in July.

Also, the area’s property tax rates are relatively low in the Finger Lakes, “by New York state standards,” according to the report.

The median property tax bill in Ontario County for 2015 was $4,263, which was slightly higher than a bill in Wayne County but much lower than Monroe County. The statewide average was $8,173.

Kolb said the state comptroller pointed out the tax rates relative to other places aren’t too bad.

“But if you talk to a property owner in Canandaigua, or Hopewell or wherever, their property taxes are still too high,” Kolb said. “That is a concern of the cost of living here and keeping our young people here.”

One way to retain youths is by making living here affordable, which DiNapoli said is a strong point in the Finger Lakes.

Median sale prices of homes have increased over a 10-year period ending in 2016, the report states.

But only 22 to 30 percent of homeowners are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing — a level of affordability, DiNapoli said — and homeownership rates range between 60 and 68 percent across the region, which is roughly 20 points higher than the state average.

Canandaigua Mayor Ellen Polimeni said the data is telling, particularly as it relates to housing, cost of government, taxes and poverty.

The city needs to direct attention to code enforcement of housing stock and infrastructure to ensure needs are being addressed, Polimeni said.

But this report should go to entrepreneurs and corporations in the hopes of attracting them to the region and encouraging those who are here to stay and expand, she said.

“This can be used as a tool,” Polimeni said.

DiNapoli said this is the third in a series of reports compiling data in each region of the state.