Eric Lerner, Ph.D.
Community & Organizational Development

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How Tompkins County will Change in the Next Ten Years

Eric Lerner
December 17, 1999

When the League of Women Voters invited me to offer some reflections on how Tompkins County will change in the next ten years, I promptly logged onto eBay and bid on a crystal ball in an online auction. While I waited for my crystal ball to arrive, I asked a number of local officials and Cornell community development faculty to ponder that question. Reflecting on the trends they identified, we can foresee change in nine major areas. Of course, basing predictions on current trends ensures that we overlook the most surprising changes. Who among us would have predicted the World Wide Web ten years ago?

Development. The center of population and development in Tompkins will continue to shift toward the Northeast part of the county. The larger towns will rival the city of Ithaca in population as well as sales and property tax base. Increasing demand for city infrastructure with a contracting tax base will be a growing challenge for the city. Both the city and the Northeast towns will be faced with increasingly congested automobile traffic and growing demand for public transportation. The recent uproars over Wal-Mart and Burger King will be succeeded by new and similar controversies about sprawl and commercial development.

Demographics. The population of Tompkins County will become more diverse, with folks of Asian, African and Hispanic descent making up growing segments of the population. We will be challenged to find ways to learn from each other in lieu of conflict. Meanwhile, as the baby boomer generation approaches retirement, the population will include a larger proportion of seniors and fewer children. This will influence housing, transportation, health care and school budgets.

Economy. With educational institutions as major employers, Tompkins' economy will continue to do better than most other upstate counties. But we're still closely tied to the upstate NY economy, which lags behind most of the nation in recovery from the last recession. When upstate NY (without NYC) is compared to other states, we rank 46th in job growth in recent years. Unless upstate makes a comeback, Tompkins can expect only limited progress. The next recession may be especially difficult, since welfare "reform" has limited the state and federal role in responding to the increased unemployment and poverty that will occur. Planning for a more sustainable locally-based economy may minimize that impact.

Devolution. Washington and Albany will continue to "devolve" policy decisions and program costs to county and municipal governments. In recent years, this has occurred prominently in solid waste management and welfare reform. Increasing local control over program policy will come at the expense of more complex challenges for local policymakers and an increased burden on local property and sales taxes. Big changes in the local health care system will result from Federal legislation (or passivity) in health care reform.

Telecommunications. New fiber optic cable infrastructure will bring high-speed Internet access to most of the county. The World Wide Web will make global markets accessible to local businesses. At the same time, Internet competition will be a growing challenge to many local retailers. The Internet will create exciting opportunities for community building, more participatory democracy, and stronger intergovernmental cooperation. It will be challenging to avoid a division of the community into electronic haves and have-nots.

Environment & Water Quality. Our relationship to the lakes, streams and groundwater will become increasingly prominent and potentially problematic. The controversy over Lake Source Cooling has already heightened awareness. There will be growing response to non-point source pollution, for example, farm and highway runoff, as affecting water quality. HUD's Erie Canal Corridor initiative, including the Inlet Island development, will highlight the relationship of water to tourism and development. There will be growing awareness of the local consequences of global warming.

Youth. An increasingly electronic economy will call for more advanced work skills from a larger proportion of the workforce. School districts will be challenged by changing educational needs, increasing diversity, new state regulations, and a smaller proportion of school budget voters with school-age children. County government will choose between expanding the county jail or making a stronger commitment to crime prevention and community-based restorative justice. Crime rates will continue to improve, as crime-prone young men make up a shrinking segment of the population.

Housing. Cornell's new dormitory construction will reduce the demand for off-campus student housing, and with thoughtful planning may improve the availability of affordable housing. Aging boomers, more single-parent families, and fewer children per family will result in demand for more and smaller housing units. More telecommuting will encourage urban residents to move to the rural fringe of the county.

Interdependency and Cooperation. All of these diverse trends influence one another in complex ways, just as the policy choices of each local organization affect each of the others. This calls for improved and expanded cooperation among county, city, town and village governments, as well as cooperation between government, schools, and the private and not-for-profit sectors. Recent intergovernmental cooperation in telecommunications, electric power, transportation and drinking water are encouraging signs, as is Day Hall's call for Cornell to become an "engaged institution". Increased public participation in community decisionmaking will be a key factor in whether we respond constructively to the coming challenges.

Eric Lerner is Associate Director of CaRDI, the Cornell Community & Rural Development Institute, and a former member of the Tompkins County Board of Representatives.

Eric Lerner, Ph.D.
Community & Organizational Development
504 South Plain Street
Ithaca, NY  14850
(607) 273-1154

Page updated August 30, 2001

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