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County's sharp population decline raises concerns among officials

New York's least populous county will see a drastic decline in the number of younger residents over the next few decades, with fewer than 130 20-somethings living there by 2040, according to a new study by Cornell University.

The projections by Cornell's Program on Applied Demographics also show the number of 30- to 39-year-old residents in the Adirondacks' Hamilton County decreasing by mid-century to 160, down from 426 in 2010.

The number of 20- to 29-year-old residents will slip to 128 by 2040, down from 354 counted during the last census, according to the researchers.

In a county with fewer than 5,000 year-round residents, the population forecast is raising concerns among local government officials in the county's nine towns. Like many rural upstate communities, they're already grappling with shrinking tax bases and having trouble finding enough people to staff volunteer emergency services. It's just that there are even fewer people to do the volunteering in the 1,717-square-mile county: 4,836, or 2.8 per square mile, the census data shows.

The county, which lies entirely within the Adirondack Park 55 miles northwest of Albany, had a population of 5,379 in 2000. The Cornell researchers said the population is projected to decrease over the next three decades to 2,800.

Although he doesn't agree that such population projections are always predictable, county Board of Supervisors Chairman William Farber acknowledged Tuesday that local leaders are looking for ways to reverse the trend.

"The lower age bracket is the number that is daunting, disconcerting and something we need to figure out how to deal with," said Farber, who is also supervisor in Morehouse, whose population of 100 makes it the county's smallest town.

While the county is known for its scenic mountains and many lakes, rivers and streams, that rugged beauty comes with a trade-off in the quality of cellphone and broadband service. People in the younger demographic grew up with handheld and laptop technology, and they expect to be able to use their mobile devices no matter how rugged the terrain or remote the location, Farber said.

"There is clearly a real issue with that age bracket and why they're not staying here," he said.

While the younger demographic is expected to dip considerably, the county's older population will increase into the 2030s before decreasing, the report said. Researchers said the number of residents 65 and older will rise from 1,242 in 2010 to 1,551 by 2035.

"It's a shame. Our area is dying," said Ermina Pincombe, Town of Benson supervisor.