CONKLIN, Ny. – Nearly everyone, it seems, in New York State’s economically stagnant Southern Tier has a story of Marcellus Shale success in neighboring Pennsylvania.
The bartender at Birtchy’s Joint knows a New York truck driver who doubled his income simply by going south of the border to work for a Pa. employer tied to the thriving fracking industry there.
A lunch patron at Jane’s Diner laments why Upstate New York can’t have its piece of the natural gas pie. Ironically, she says this while proceeding to devour a slice of the restaurant’s to-die-for chocolate and peanut butter pie.
And business owner after business owner sing the blues over slipping sales, plunging town populations and increasingly cash-strapped consumers. All this, while just south in prosperous Pennsylvania, the cash registers of their commercial counterparts are ringing like never before.
Simply put, there is some serious Marcellus Shale envy here in New York’s Southern Tier.
To the south, in Pennsylvania, Conklin Town Supervisor James Finch sees a new truck in every driveway, a new snowmobile in every shed and new siding on every house — all of it fueled by fracking.
Meanwhile to the north, New York’s Southern Tier towns have gone from struggling to starting to die, Finch says.
“The prosperity over there is great,” Finch said of Pennsylvania. “Here, we have nothing.”
Such is economic situation and public sentiment that is fueling talk of secession in New York towns that stretch along Pennsylvania’s border.
“Sign me up,” shouted Derek Birtch, 35, owner of Birtchy’s Joint, a bar, restaurant and off-track betting parlor in Conklin.
Birtch only recently caught wind of the secession scuttlebutt, but he’s already been liking posts about it on Facebook and mining the Internet for more information.
“The economy would be better,” he said of the prospect of cash-strapped Southern Tier towns like Conkin switching states to Pennsylvania.
That way, the Southern Tier’s rich resources buried deep underground could finally be tapped, unlocking income, jobs and new levels of commerce that would resound throughout the small town’s struggling economy.
“People would have more money to come to my restaurant more,” Birtch added.
As it is, his bar business, always slow this time of year, has been moribund, Birtch said, echoing tales of economic woe told by several Conklin business owners.
The town off of the first New York exit of Interstate 81 has seen a steady steam of once-stable employers shutter, residents reluctantly pull up stakes, and two severe Susquehanna River basin floods wash away some 250 homes, never to be replaced.
With less people working and living in Conklin, there are fewer to drive by Fran Larkin’s liquor store on Route 7. His story is Conlkin’s economic decline in microcosm.
When Larkin retired from his manufacturing job in the Broome County Industrial Park, just down the road, his company had 2,600 workers. Now, it is down to 600.
But that’s still better than many of the other companies in the once prosperous park. In the years since, everything from board manufacturers to book binders have left town or gone bust. These days, the town is storing some of its municipal equipment inside industrial park buildings that once hummed with manufacturing.
Still, Larkin thought enough of Conklin’s future to plunk down the investment for his mom-and-pop liquor store — something he realizes he couldn’t keep should the town ever switch states to Pennsylvania and its system of state-run liquor stores.
His small business grew a little in each of the six years he owned it. That is, until last year when gross sales plunged a whopping $20,000, Larkin said.
While he still eked out a profit, his entire outlook on the future has changed.
“It hurts,” Larkin said. “We still made money, but when you feel you’re not growing any more; that is disheartening.”
Writ large, Conklin is no longer growing. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Now wonder so many here see fracking as this forlorn area’s only remaining game-changer. Indeed, many ascribe almost mythical economic healing powers to the Marcellus Shale, which looms as a Conklin cure-all. If it takes seceding from New York and joining Pennsylvania to unlock its untold economic potential, so be it, some here say.
“Fracking would be something that would greatly benefit the Southern Tier,” Larkin added. “It would put money in people’s pockets, and it would put money in governments’ pockets, alleviating their budgets.”
With Cuomo’s fracking ban, signed late last year, a Southern Tier secession to Pennsylvania is quickly becoming the last, best hope for towns like Conklin to tap the rich resource that runs right under their feet — that marvelous Marcellus Shale.
“Five of the richest wells are right across the border,” Finch pointed out. “We have that here, too. And the Utica Shale is under the Marcellus Shale. It’s right under our feet.”
But is secession a realistic way for the Southern Tier to finally get at its economy-saving shale and all the natural gas locked inside it?
The truth is, almost no one here believes secession will ever happen. Most don’t even know what processes and procedures would be involved for a New York town to pick up and become part of Pennsylvania.
Yet, people are talking about it. And the more they talk, the more the idea seems to make sense.
“I think it is good that people are taking the secession talk seriously,” said bar owner Birtch. “I thought it might die out. It still may; there is a big difference between talk and action. But at least right now there’s talk.”
So would it, could it, ever happen?
Coming Wednesday: The New York politician who first floated the idea of secession to join Pennsylvania explains how it would work.
This article was written by JOHN LUCIEW from The Patriot-News and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.