By Gareth Henderson
Vermont’s great brain drain – the loss of young people moving out of state – is often one of the chief concerns when people discuss the state’s future.
Now, U.S. Census results released this month have verified a downward trend in this region.
Most area towns saw consistent population declines in the past decade, according to the 2010 Census numbers. In the Standard’s readership area, the only towns with population growth were Hartland (+5.3 percent) and Plymouth (+11.5 percent). Woodstock had a 5.7-percent decline, and the towns of Pomfret, Reading, Bridgewater and Barnard had population declines of 7.7, 5.8, 4.5 and 1.1 percent, respectively. Killington had the biggest drop, losing 25.9 percent of its population, or 284 people, within the last decade.
The numbers also had strong regional implications. Windsor County’s population dropped by 1.3 percent over the last 10 years, while the numbers increased in the northern counties.
In recent years, some Vermont towns have redoubled their efforts on economic development, in a bid to attract more businesses, tourists and full-time residents. This week, Woodstock Economic Development Commission Chair Charlie Kimbell said high real estate prices and the lure of jobs in the Upper Valley were probably two major reasons why Woodstock experienced a decline. Kimbell said the EDC was well aware of the population issue and the challenges involved in turning the situation around.
“The key for long-term success for Woodstock is to maintain and strengthen our existing tourist economy, while building a diverse economic base comprised of small to medium-sized businesses of 5-20 employees in a variety of professions and trades,” Kimbell said. “Creating the environment where those businesses are able to have their needs met is our mission.”
He added that the EDC would soon survey existing Woodstock businesses to find out how the Commission can help with their long-term needs.
As for Killington’s numbers, Killington Economic Development and Tourism Department Director Seth Webb said, “There are a number of things that we’re doing that are designed to make Killington a more livable community.”
Webb noted that Killington recently received $285,000 in state grants to expand sidewalks and improve its Route 4 gateway. He said improvements would make Killington’s roadways more suitable for pedestrians and bikers. Webb also pointed out that the EDT is targeting the town’s 3,000 second homeowners, in efforts to attract more full-time residents. The EDT also plans to promote the town’s assets such as the school system and the local library.
Also this week, Joan Goldstein, executive director at the Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation, commented on the Census results. Goldstein said people have long talked about the number of young people leaving the state.
“Now the numbers are really reflecting that fact,” she said.
Goldstein said much of the economic development policy in the state is written “as if we had runaway growth.”
“We need to change that mindset,” she said.
Goldstein said people move to the locations where job creation and affordable housing are in the greatest supply. She described GMEDC as a “subcontractor” for economic development efforts in the region. The corporation tries to connect local businesses with programs and initiatives that could help them expand and create jobs.
For example, Goldstein said the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive is a state program that has been very helpful. The Wilder-based company Concepts NREC is using this program to bring a new production facility to its operation here. King Arthur Flour is also using this program for expansion.
Goldstein said the Census numbers were “disturbing,” but efforts to promote job creation were an essential part of the solution.
“If we could attract additional businesses here to create jobs here, [the people] would stay,” Goldstein said.
This article first appeared in the February 24th print edition of the Vermont Standard, Woodstock VT.