By Ted Como
Some older Ogdensburg residents who remember the past, dream of a day when the city of their youth might re-emerge. From social media comments many seem to believe it’s but a question of leadership.
But there’s no going back to what once was. Ogdensburg has been in decline for nearly a century. Its heyday was around 1930 when the population peaked at about 17,000 and over the next 30 years, the city lost a thousand residents long before Urban Renewal came along. In April of 1962 the Urban Rewewal plan was announced; in 1963 it was funded and the boundaries set; approximately 25 acres of downtown containing 134 buildings. The federal government paid 75 percent of the cost and the state and city split the rest.
In just five years, from 1960 to 1965, the city lost another 1,000 residents bringing the population to 15,000. Urban Renewal demolition began in December, 1971 and from 1965 to 1975, 1,000 more residents left, dropping the population to 14,000. It took 20 years or until 1995 to lose the next 1,000 and another 1,000 left between 1995 to 2005, leaving the population at 12,000.
Ten years later in 2015 it was down to 11,000 and in the past five years, Ogdensburg lost most of another 1,000. In April last year the census recorded but 10,186 residents, a loss of 40 percent of the city’s population from its peak.
Will the city, or the county or even the North Country, see people begin to come rather than continue to leave? A 2004 report from the NY State Division of Local Government Services revealed a sustained pattern of decline especially for western and northern New York: “recent trends suggest an acceleration of this negative pattern in these areas.” From 1950 to 2000, Buffalo lost half its population; Rochester, 24 percent and Syracuse, 33 percent.
The 1930 Ogdensburg directory reveals what once was: more than three miles of stores in its business streets with nearly 500 retail and wholesale establishments and over 300 professional offices. With a large summer tourist and summer resident population Ogdensburg was a trading center which boasted 75 industries.
There were 89 neighborhood grocers, nine churches and six hotels and rooms at inns for a total of 800 rooms available. The city had three theaters with seating of 2,500, 4,000 homes, 50 miles of streets and seven miles of street railway. For nearly twice the population in 1930, Ogdensburg had 22 firemen; today is has 20. Then, it had 15 police officers for 17,000 residents; today, it has 23 for some 10,000 residents. Back then there were five flour mills, four watch repairmen, three piano tuners, two junk dealers and one occultist, who, it would seem, failed to see very far into the future.
The robust city that was Ogdensburg 90 years ago is long gone but hope for a smaller, yet thriving community, is justified. Ogdensburg has significant untapped potential in the development of its greatest asset, its incredible history. But capitalizing on it requires a carefully crafted development plan based on a comprehensive study of how the city should move forward.
Absent such a study scarce development dollars may well be wasted on initiatives that do not promote growth. For instance, with a declining regional population should the city spend heavily on regional recreational facilities as has been suggested? Or, would the city be better served investing in historical tourism that will stimulate the economy and promote Ogdensburg as a great place to live?
Will the city see more concrete block buildings and parking lots downtown? Or might it adopt an historical theme for downtown development with shops that cater to tourism, which drives demand for new restaurants, motels and economic development that returns value to the city and its residents?
The path forward must be based on a long-term strategy rather than short-term whims and because of their failed Urban Rewewal program that accelerated the city’s decline, the federal and state governments should pay to develop it. They owe at least that to every city resident.