Demographics trouble Vermont planners; aging population could affect local economy

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s no secret that Vermont’s population, on average, is aging, and Addison County is being affected almost as much as any of the rural counties.
In the past 10 years, three new senior living facilities opened in Addison County (Armory Lane Senior Housing in Vergennes and Eastview and the Lodge at Otter Creek in Middlebury), indicating an increase in the county’s elderly population. During the same period, high school enrollment dropped to its lowest levels since the early 1990s.
As young, employable people move toward cities, rural communities are left with aging populations whose financial demands on the infrastructure will likely be shouldered by a smaller number of lower-paid workers.
“Vermont doesn’t stand alone,” said Michael Moser, of UVM’s Center for Rural Studies. “It’s part of a national trend.”
The decades-old trend he refers to is that of younger families migrating from the northeastern part of the United States toward the Southwest. This trend results in an increasingly elderly population in New England as young people seek employment in growing cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
“New England’s population is not on a growth trajectory,” Moser concluded.
Vermont’s overall population increased 0.1 percent from 2010 to 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 625,741 to 626,630. However, the only counties that experienced an increase in population were in the northwestern quadrant: Chittenden, Lamoille, Franklin and Grand Isle.
Every other county in the state saw its population decline. Rutland County fared the worst, with a population loss of 1.7 percent. Over that period Addison County lost 0.1 percent, from 36,821 to 36,791.
“As people seek work in Burlington, there will be a ring effect around the city of workers who commute,” Moser said.
 “The aging demographics for Addison County, like the rest of Vermont, are pretty scary,” said Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. “They show the median population aging significantly over the next 10 years.”
The projections Lougee refers to show, for example, the number of people in Addison County age 70 and older more than doubling, from 3,399 to 8,430, between 2010 and 2030. In the same time period, the population of people age 20-49 is projected to drop by nearly 11 percent, from 13,998 to 12,459. Another way of looking at those figures is that in 2010 there were about four working-age individuals (20-49-year-olds) per person over the age of 70; in 2030 there will be fewer than one and a half working-age individuals to support each person over 70.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recognized the problem last November in a statement that came on the heels of a study that highlighted trends of rural emigration.
“This is just one more reminder that we need a national commitment to create new opportunities in rural America that keep folks in small towns and reignite economic growth across the nation,” Vilsack said.
In the face of these challenges, is there light at the end of the tunnel for places like Addison County?
Andy Mayer, president of the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, certainly thinks so.
“People want to be here, that’s the key. If people aren’t tied to the place, they won’t stay,” he said.
Mayer stressed the importance of Addison County’s opportunities for tourism and outdoor recreation, and its reputation for offering a high quality of life to residents. He pointed to two recent events as examples of athletic, outdoor activities that both serve local folks and bring tourists to the area: June’s Vermont Gran Fondo bike ride, which hosted 180 riders, half from out of the area, and May’s Middlebury Maple Run half marathon, which has grown to nearly 800 participants in only a few years.
“We want to position Addison County as an ideal place for outdoor recreation,” Mayer said. “That’s why we’ve worked with events like the Gran Fondo and Maple Run. People will think, hey, I want to be there, I want to start a business.”
What can local and state government do to bolster efforts to draw out-of-staters to Vermont?
“We have very high perceived quality of life, but you can’t just rely on that,” Mayer said. “The state spends very little money on tourism.”
Moser echoed Mayer’s concerns that more could be done by the state to make tourism a viable industry.
“Tourism is a service industry, which means low wages,” he said. “We need to find some way to boost wages in the tourism industry.”
He also points to environmental concerns.
“One of the challenges for tourism is the threat of climate change. If warming trends continue, we stand to lose half of our tourist business.”
Ed Buttolph, 96, of Middlebury served on the town selectboard in the 1960s during a period of growth for the town. The retired developer of Buttolph Acres in Middlebury now lives at the Lodge at Otter Creek.
Buttolph expressed confidence in the area’s ability to retain its young population and offer opportunities for work. He pointed to the development of Exchange Street during his time as a town selectboard member, and to the continued presence of commerce in that area.
Buttolph also pointed out the importance of retirement communities themselves as employers in the area.
“Addison County’s elderly population may be growing faster than in other places because people come back to retire, but the result is that places like the Lodge are some of the area’s biggest employers,” he said.
Addison County’s natural beauty and the lifestyle the area offers undeniably work in its favor in terms of attracting residents — both old and young — Mayer reiterated. But those things that attract retirees can also be attractive to younger adults.
“We can’t expect to retain everyone. Some young people will go away, because they want to explore the world. Our experience is that they often come back,” Mayer said.
Just ask Patrick Dempsey. The 27-year-old graduate of Otter Valley Union High School spent five years in Boston before deciding to return to his native Vermont.
Dempsey is a bike mechanic at Skihaus in Middlebury and an avid mountain biker. While he admits that it’s tough for a 20-something to find work in the area, he feels that the future of development in Addison County looks bright.
“Looking around Middlebury, there’s a lot of overall growth in things to do. There are more places to go, more restaurants,” Dempsey said.
Dempsey’s brothers moved to Burlington for work, and he has lived there too, but he feels drawn to Addison County for the quality of life it offers.
“You just can’t beat the lifestyle here,” he said with a grin.
OTTER VALLEY UNION High School graduate Patrick Dempsey moved back to his native Addison County in search of a better quality of life after living in Boston for several years. Dempsey works in the bike shop at Skihaus in Middlebury. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

Share this story:

More News
News Uncategorized

Fresh Air Fund youths returning to county

The Fresh Air Fund, initiated in 1877 to give kids from New York City the opportunity to e … (read more)

Obituaries Uncategorized

Mark A. Nelson of Bristol

BRISTOL — A memorial service for Mark A. Nelson of Bristol will be held 1 p.m. on Saturday … (read more)

Sports Uncategorized

High school athletes ready for fall playoffs this week

See when your favorite high school team is competing in the fall sports playoffs.

Share this story: