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Guest editorial: Demographics, Burlington and the future of Vermont

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Posted on April 8, 2013 |
By Emerson Lynn



If one were to visualize Vermont as a glacier at the sea’s edge and if those counties losing population were shown as falling into the sea, the only part yet to fall would be the state’s northwest corner — Chittenden, Lamoille, Grand Isle and Franklin counties. All other counties are underwater.

It’s most dramatic in the state’s southern tier, according to a report by the Vermont Economy Newsletter. In the two-year period from 2010-2012, Rutland County lost 691 people, Windham County lost 505, Windsor County lost 416, Bennington County lost 394 and Washington County lost 135. Addison County was in negative territory, but just barely, losing only 45. 

The Northeast Kingdom — Essex, Orange and Orleans counties — lost as well; however, the numbers were lower than those in the southern part of the state.

The growth center is Chittenden County, which added 1,693 inhabitants. Franklin County added 425, Lamoille County added 423 and Grand Isle managed to find space for an additional 15 people.

Even among those four counties that added population, only Lamoille managed to grow at a rate that equaled the national average.

Only Chittenden and Lamoille counties could boast of a migration rate that showed more people moving in than moving out. (Franklin County shows population growth because its birth rate exceeds its death rate.)

The two-year span is a small time frame by which to judge long-term trends. Still, the information is consistent with the census data collected over the past several decades. 

This trend should concern us all. It’s terribly difficult to reenergize regions that are in decline; people migrate to areas that show promise and opportunity. The further the drop, the faster the drop. 

This also explains Chittenden County’s growth, and its outsized contribution to the state’s adjusted gross income figures. According to the report, 75 percent of the state’s job growth was in Chittenden County, although it only constitutes 25 percent of the state’s population. It’s the only place in Vermont that is growing in meaningful numbers. 

This creates an obvious economic development challenge for a state that is Chittenden County-centric. How does Vermont’s southern flank reverse the out-migration numbers? Is there the recognition in Montpelier that Vermont has more to it than Burlington? When legislators consider policy changes, or new programs, do they weigh how those decisions affect their constituencies, or how they affect the growth in their respective counties?

It’s understood that whatever good happens in Chittenden County translates to Vermont as a whole. Tax revenues are tax revenues. Jobs are jobs. We get that. We’d rather have people move to Chittenden County than to leave the state altogether. 

But Vermont as a state suffers if Chittenden County prospers and all others lose. And all others will lose if it’s not understood that there needs to be a countervailing force in Vermont. Chittenden County has the population, the wealth and the political power. Left to the force of inertia those influences will only increase.

Who fights the battle for the other 13 counties? 

What is happening in Vermont is happening elsewhere. Rural counties continue to lose population; urban centers are expanding. 

But it needn’t happen in Vermont, at least not to the extent it is. We’re small enough to counter the trends if we just will. 

But it’s a journey that begins by accepting the fact that the disparity exists and that it’s not healthy to continue as we are. It’s part of a process that recognizes the relevance of the decisions we make. For example, as Vermont speeds along the path to health care reform, there will be increased pressure to centralize our care. That may be the prudent thing to do from a global perspective, but each time something is weakened, things around it weaken as well. We need to be aware of the collateral damage. The same applies to education, or to policies that encourage innovation.

It’s time Vermont recognizes its demographic issues and their various implications. We can’t think of a more pressing issue, nor can we think of one that is more steadfastly ignored.

— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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