Central New York Is On The Up
Central New York truly seems to be on the up. I left the area in 1999, but it never really left me. After a few years in Albany, I moved to the UK in 2003 and have lived there ever since. I return home at least once a year and stay for as long as I can – usually in the summer and now with my British-born wife Laura and our two kids. The area seems to be in a better place than at any time in the last two decades – it is more vibrant, more optimistic, and seems to be poised for further growth.
What amazed me on this trip was just how many jobs were on offer. When I left Oneida High School in 1999, most of the traditional major employers in central New York had either already shut or were on their way out. General Electric once employed tens of thousands between Syracuse and Utica. Griffiss Air Force Base, Carrier, and Oneida Limited also had thousands on their payroll. Those jobs all disappeared between the 1970s and the early 2000s. The downturn in U.S. manufacturing and base closures at the end of the Cold War meant that in my school years central New York and particularly its towns and cities were experiencing depopulation. Vacant housing, boarded up factories, and empty warehouses were not uncommon sights.
This year I saw ‘Now Hiring’ signs everywhere – a bewildering contrast. Briggs and Stratton’s flashing sign on Route 5 in Sherrill says the company is offering large sign-on bonuses. The Oneida Indian Nation is offering reduced-rent housing for new employees. Every supermarket, shop, business, and restaurant seemed to be looking for new staff. Radio advertisements spoke of good benefits and flexible hours. Naturally, this employee’s market makes things difficult for employers and I don’t underestimate the challenges they face. But at the same time, it is a marked change from the not-too-distant past when good-paying jobs seemed to be evaporating.
Oneida’s downtown appears to be in a much better state than it was five or ten years ago. There are good cafés and new businesses opening in the city’s historic buildings. Some shopfronts are still vacant, but the great work of the Oneida Downtown Renewal Committee and other local groups committed to improving the city is making a great difference. The $10 million allocated in December from the New York State Downtown Revitalization Initiative will give downtown a further boost.
The city is looking better more generally as well. In my schooldays, the derelict National Casket Company factory buildings and the old Oneida High School visible from Main Street, were eyesores – off-limits, vacant buildings that stood empty for years in the heart of the town. Now there is a smart housing development on the site of the former and a new public library at the latter. Personally, I’d have loved to see them restored, but fire destroyed the factory in 2006 and the abandoned High School was razed. However, some of the great nineteenth-century houses on Main Street that looked ragged in my school days have been restored beautifully in recent years.
Other cities in central New York also seem to be coming back to life. We spent a day in Rome and were impressed with so many recent changes. After seeing Fort Stanwix, we visited a new business – Broaster’s Coffee Company – operating from Rome’s historic City Hall. We then went to West Dominick Street where we could drink the coffee roasted in town at Coppercino’s Café, and we also visited a new, independently-owned bookshop, Keaton & Lloyd’s. The Oneida Carry Monument, unveiled in 2021, makes a powerful statement of the site’s historic importance. Groups like Syracuse History and Utica Olmstead City are running excellent restoration initiatives in the area’s bigger cities.
For me, it is rewarding to see people in my hometown being able to get good jobs and local businesses making downtown areas vibrant. I heard some say that not all the jobs on offer give employees the kind of pay they need to afford childcare, medical coverage, gas, and other necessities. Families working hard to make ends meet continue to face challenges here and in many parts of the nation. But compared to the darkest days in the ‘rust belt’ – when jobs seemed to be disappearing left, right, and center – there is plenty of room for optimism about the present and hope for the future.
Published in the Oneida Dispatch, August 20, 2022 (online), August 21, 2022 (print)
Links of Interest:
City of Oneida, "Forging Our Place: Downtown Revitalization Initiative" (2019)
"Oneida Begins its Journey to Downtown Revitalization," Oneida Dispatch, February 23, 2022.
"Oneida Panel Makes Picks for Downtown Project," Rome Sentinel, July 9, 2022.