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An Overview of St. Lawrence County, N.Y.

June 11, 2009

St. Lawrence County is the largest land mass county east of the Mississippi, and its low population, around 110,000, makes it one of the most rural. In Patchwork Nation, St. Lawrence County represents Service Worker Centers, the community type made up of small to midsize towns that are especially sensitive to economic troubles.

Massena, N.Y. trucker Keith Paterson; NCPR photo

The economy by sector:

Manufacturing employment is focused in Massena, where inexpensive hydropower from the St. Lawrence Seaway creates a favorable environment for energy-intensive industries such as aluminum smelting. However, a General Motors plant in Massena closed within the past year. Corning, a glass and ceramics company, maintains a plant near Canton, though the economic downturn has led to several rounds of layoffs.

Agricultural employment is driven by an active dairy sector, with numerous small farms raising dairy cattle and feed crops. Associated dairy and cheese plants have been struggling to survive, with closings of a Kraft plant in Canton, and a kosher cheese operation in Ogdensburg. Farm labor is increasingly done by seasonal immigrants, both legal and undocumented. Another factor in the agricultural economy is a substantial influx of Amish farm families, drawn in part by cheap land prices.

The resource sector, traditionally dominated by logging, paper manufacturing and mining, is also struggling. Only one of several mining operations in the county is still active. Two paper mills remain in operation.

Public sector employment dominates among middle-class professionals. The state prison system operates units in Ogdensburg and Gouverneur. Colleges in the State University of New York are located in Potsdam and Canton. In many smaller towns, the public school system is the largest single employer.

Educational employment: In addition to the public schools and colleges, the county also boasts two private colleges: Clarkson University in Potsdam and St. Lawrence University in Canton.

Energy sector: The county has numerous hydroelectric projects, the largest being the Moses-Saunders Power Project on the St. Lawrence River near Massena.

Transportation sector: St. Lawrence County is not served by any section of the interstate highway system and has no passenger rail service. Airports in Massena and Ogdensburg are served by a commuter air carrier, but that carrier has changed several times in recent years, with airport closings in between. The St. Lawrence Seaway forms the northern border of the county. A port is located at Ogdensburg, providing sea access for mining operations near Gouverneur. Two international bridges, one at Ogdensburg, and one near Massena, provide access to Canada.

Special communities:

The Mohawk Nation is divided between the U.S. and Canada, with the U.S. portion located in the northeast corner of the county near Massena. Formerly, the best-paying jobs were held by ironworkers, who migrated with the construction trade, and by those employed at the Massena industrial sites. As those sectors have struggled, smuggling contraband and illegal migrants across the U.S. border through the reservation have both increased. A casino and retail operations that sell untaxed gasoline and cigarettes are also major employers.

Hundreds of families in the Old Order and Schwartzentruber Amish sects have migrated into the county over the last 30 years. In addition to subsistence and market farming, they have been active in cheese making, craft production, sawmilling, wood frame construction and furniture making.

The southeastern portion of the county lies within the Blue Line that marks the boundaries of the Adirondack Park. Much land has passed from the control of paper and logging companies into the hands of the state government, either through outright purchase, or through conservation easement. In addition to this direct impact on the local government tax base, park land use restrictions fuel an ongoing conflict between development and conservation interests.

By Dale Hobson, North Country Public Radio

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