In the business world, one of the harbingers of success and innovation is seen by an entrepreneur’s ability to ask the right questions.
Why is the market reacting the way it is? How could the business respond in beneficial ways? How can the business make its products better to meet public demand, or expand in directions not previously considered? Hypotheticals are posed and examined.
Communities would benefit by doing the same.
In Addison County, for example, we know our population growth in the past decade has been stagnant, and we know young people and young families are leaving the area faster than they are moving in.
We also know that the number of people age 25-49 leaving the county is greater than the number of that same demographic moving in; and we know the number of people age 70 and over moving into the county is our fastest growing sector.
At the root of these two concerns—stagnant population growth and our changing demographics—is the county’s economic future. If we were to create steady, if modest, growth, and attract a growing core of younger workers and families, then retailers, professionals and entrepreneurs would have the confidence to settle here, and that rising growth would likely beat inflation and keep the wheels of progress rolling. Without such growth, or when communities are in the throes of stagnation, the economy is more likely to decline and head into a tailspin.
To address those issues, we might ask a few questions:
• What jobs are attracting 25- to 49-year-olds throughout the rest of the country? What would it take to attract those jobs to Addison County? What other jobs would be a good fit for the area? What job opportunities are available in the current market?
• Is our educational system meeting the needs of students for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs? How can we help the education system prepare students for the right skills to fill the jobs needed? Are area industries and commercial enterprises offering apprentice and internship opportunities and how could that be improved? What other avenues might be approached?
• What factors contribute to a high quality of life for those 25-49? Which ones don’t we satisfy, and why not? If we fall short on nighttime activities in Middlebury, for instance, what could we do to make the entertainment scene more robust?
• Are our town’s recreational opportunities adequate on a seasonal basis? Are there enough playing fields? Where do softball teams play in Middlebury, for example? Might we create an adult volleyball league? There’s an adult basketball league in the winter, and a ski bum league in winter, but what about a Nordic ski league, or bicycle time trials in the summer, or local soccer or rugby teams for adults?
• Do our towns do a good job of promoting social clubs and activities through young professional groups, local business associations and other fraternal groups based on common interests? If not, what are people looking for? What could be done better?
The art of this line of thinking is to identify a problem or challenge, ask why that problem exists, and then start coming up with answers. Another approach is to pose “what if” questions to address a problem — a tactic that often leads to more creative solutions.
What if, for example, Addison County towns established a local options tax of a penny to address common health care concerns? How much would be generated? How could it be used to strengthen the communities and improve individual health? Could that become a job creator?
We know affordable housing and transportation are obstacles to establishing a viable workforce. What if towns sponsored contests for affordable housing solutions with the winning developer earning a property tax deduction of a few years?
Or consider less complicated problems: What if, for instance, the town of Middlebury improved its entrance to Means Woods and made it an inviting park? What impact would that have and to what benefit?
Large issues or small, asking the right questions often leads to feasible answers.
The problem towns face, as do many businesses, is they are too busy completing day-to-day tasks to stop and think of the longer-term questions. But, then again, that’s why some businesses don’t see change coming soon enough and end up sputtering along until they shut their doors. Towns do too.
Angelo S. Lynn