Ways of Seeing by Laurie Cox: New ways to lure youth to Vermont
The snow’s piling up and the temperature’s dropping. Some folks are dreaming of warmer climes. Not me. By my third year of college, I knew Vermont was where I wanted to live. Growing up in Washington State, I had known wonderful wilderness. Vermont’s was similar, though on a less majestic scale. I relished the many older buildings; the way towns had changed only gradually as the decades passed. Around Seattle, everything expanded since World War II; even the oldest buildings dated back a mere hundred years. How special, I thought, to live in a place that could embrace change at a more measured pace.
Who knew that I was about to become part of the youth “invasion”? To me, it was a place that just felt right, a good fit. When I graduated, I had few professional skills. Jobs beyond minimum wage were in short supply, but I didn’t need to earn very much. I could share the rent with friends, commute on an old bicycle. I only knew of this “invasion” because the college’s Dean, perhaps responding to political pressures, actively urged parents to not let their new graduates remain in the area. My parents were heartily disappointed when I did not climb into their car to return west for my future.
I have read some articles written about this influx of young people to the state fifty years ago. While reasons for migration varied, the availability of relatively cheap land and housing played a part. Some people stayed briefly, others settled in for life. Whatever skills we began with, many of us went on to become lawyers, teachers, farmers, artists, builders, doctors, and entrepreneurs. Some of us became “pillars” of our communities, and possibly a few became outlaws. Those who stayed undoubtedly found the “good life” in this state. Ripton’s population more than tripled between 1960 and 1990.
Since the early 2000’s, Vermont politicians have worried about the slowdown of the state’s population growth, particularly in the younger sector. Other than the recent offer of $10,000 for people to come to Vermont and telecommute, little was tried to change that demographic, other than wringing hands and bemoaning too many old people, which is not really a message that’s likely to entice youth! Of course, 50 years ago the hand wringing was about too many young people arriving.
I don’t know about the rest of the state, but the height of Ripton’s population was in 1880 when the mountains were almost denuded, farms and sawmills abounded, and most people had huge families. One reason for the state’s aging population is that most people don’t have large families anymore. Considering a “sustainable” population for our environment, that is probably a good thing, but it does weigh on the economist’s or business owner’s goal of constant growth.
In 2015, a gubernatorial candidate said younger adults wanted WIFI, cell service, lattes, and to live in apartment buildings. I looked around Ripton: no apartment buildings; coffee available at the store, but no lattes; cell service here and there, but we did have internet.
I’m not sure anyone picks where they live based on coffee, and my understanding is that — if they can afford it — most young people would rather live in a house than an apartment. The state might be able to help make low-cost homes more available, but the real thing they could help with is cell service and internet. While these utilities are easily accessible in Chittenden County and most larger communities, they are fair to nonexistent in many smaller towns. These towns have more housing available. They have schools begging for more students. But the very people our governor is trying to lure to the state, the telecommuters, cannot settle in a place without decent internet service.
Maybe some younger people don’t want to live in small towns, but I think what drew folks forty years ago still beckons. Increasingly, I see younger people and families moving to Ripton — where we may not have much cell service, but many areas do have good internet.
In our smaller communities, we can often handle a bit of growth without having to radically change the landscape: a new house here or there instead of a development. This kind of growth can support small general stores to stay viable, schools to flourish, and historic buildings and churches to not crumble but continue as part of our beautiful landscape.
During Governor Douglas’ early term, I was going to write to him. I was going to propose an investment plan for Vermont: statewide cell and internet service; diversified, organic and value-added agriculture; single-payer health care; renewable energy; high-quality educational system and affordable child care. I never wrote that letter, but I believe if we had taken that direction fifteen years ago, we would have young people and businesses flocking to our state. We might even be wringing our hands over their numbers, in spite of our winters.
Laurie Cox is a retired school counselor and long-time Ripton selectboard member. Besides occasional writing, she sings with Maiden Vermont, pursues art, takes long hikes with her dog(s) and seasonally gardens. She also is about to become more actively involved in things political, environmental, and just.
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