Orchard Park native Jon Pierowicz can see the forest from the skyscrapers when it comes to life in the Empire State. In his eyes, there are two distinct and different areas that have been wedded together — for better and worse.
One region has an array of natural and environmental treasures. On the southern side is a city that never sleeps and a Long Island that makes up nearly 70% of New York state’s total population of 20 million.
From Pierowicz’s vantage point, he thinks it is time for residents to consider a separation of sorts. One that allows both upstate and the metropolitan New York region to stand on their own.
“How can we structure the governance of this region in a way that is beneficial to the people, economy, landscape that is actually here that is far, far different from New York City?” he asked in a recent phone interview.
As founder of Upstate Independence, Pierowicz attended Wesleyan University before pursuing his legal education at the UCLA School of Law. He later served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Today, he practices law in Buffalo. His wife, Alina, an active philanthropist and the founder of Verax Real Estate, also is part of the initiative.
In driving this mission, Pierowicz believes a new beginning would best serve those who choose to live in upstate. “This frustration with the status quo, coupled with the realization that New York state is structurally broken and no longer serves the interests of upstaters, has led us to the firm conviction that reform is no longer possible,” he notes at upstateindependence.com. “Instead, our only chance at a brighter, more dynamic future is to start anew, govern ourselves, and seize ahold of our destiny. We are equally tired of the defeatist mindset that often pervades our communities — a world-weary pessimism that dismisses any possibility of improvement, uplift, and victory. This defeatism must be rejected along with the stale status quo of New York state.”
That task won’t be easy for the fledgling non-profit as its unveiling occurred on the Fourth of July. Since then, the website has announced its efforts “to create a new and independent state for Upstate New York” while offering other bits of information through newsletters and studies.
This week, the organization focused on incomes. Upstate Independence claims if the region were its own state, it would rank about 27th in per capita income — about the same as Texas or Ohio. Upstate’s per capita income in 2020 was $54,753, while the state with the lowest per capita income, Mississippi, had a per capita income of $42,716.
Despite that ranking, the region continues to see an outward migration of its residents. In Chautauqua County, over the last 10 years, the decline has been from 133,333 to 126,827 — a 4.8% reduction.
“Population loss is always seemingly more dramatic here,” he said. “We’ve actually grown … at a significantly slower rate than all the border states (including Pennsylvania and Ohio). … It’s not just the weather.”
Government has also put a stranglehold on the region. In this county alone, there are 18 school districts and 44 municipal governments. If the state were to divide, area taxing entities would not be able to rely on funding from the world’s financial capital of New York City and Wall Street.
“There are immense problems on the local and county level in upstate particularly and the political culture that reigns in Albany … emanates from that local level,” Pierowicz said, hinting all government and schools would have to do some reorganization without that chunk of funding.
That could be a worrisome dilemma for many who work in the public sector. Pierowicz, however, believes the corruption that is tied to the capital and some downstate lawmakers has soiled a reputation across New York.
He also points to a 2019 survey done by Siena College regarding a division of the state. While 56% opposed the idea, there were 38% in upstate who supported it.
“Why not push for a new governance with a better system that we can at least make our decisions, govern ourselves and hope for a better future rather than just sort of manage the decline,” he said. “That is what we’ve been doing for far too long.”
Source: Post Journal