The U.S. women’s alpine world cup at Killington Thanksgiving weekend promises to be a media spectacle attracting tourists and skiers from the northeast and beyond. According to event organizers the two-day competition is likely to draw thousands of people to the valley. It is the first World Cup in the northeast 25 years.
That same weekend the first prong of a major marketing campaign designed to rebrand the region and reverse years of demographic decline will be unveiled. The website, Killingtonvalley.com is one small part of a multi-year effort that local business leaders, including the Rutland Economic Development Corporation and the Chamber of Commerce hope will attract young families to the area and debunk the myth that there are no jobs or opportunities in Rutland.
Last week the group announced that it was seeking proposals for a digital marketing campaign focused on population growth, improved tourism marketing, and a push to retain more local students and young professionals. The Board of Aldermen has committed $100,000 over the next two years from the Zamias impact fund and another $100,000 has been raised by local businesses.
The marketing plan is focused on “rebuilding the regional population.”
Mary Cohen, the executive director of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, says the group envisions “a fundamental shift in focus, in how we talk about the region and how we spend limited marketing dollars.”
Lyle Jepson REDC’s executive director says they are now in the process of meeting with town managers and select boards in the county to raise money and gather information on the assets each town would like to see highlighted as part of the campaign. He said they’ve been “very graciously received” and that “people understand the problem and the need.”
“We’re being pretty transparent,” Jepson said. “We’re coming for money.”
But he also emphasized they’re looking for people to participate in a non-monetary way and that the campaign should be understood as a five to 10 year plan, not a quick fix. The marketing effort is made up of three subcommittees: one devoted to quality of life and population growth, another to workforce development, and a third to the Killington Valley initiative, which is largely built around outdoor recreation. “Within each committee we need help,” Jepson said.
Rutland County has experienced a sharp demographic decline over the last two decades and current projections suggest that the trend will continue. According to the department of labor even under the best case scenario Rutland is likely to see its population decline by another 5 percent over the next 10 years. The latest census figures show that the county has lost nearly 2,000 people in the last five years alone.
“The population is shrinking faster than any other county,” said Art Woolf an associate professor of economics at UVM. Woolf pointed out that since 2000 Rutland’s population has declined by almost twice that of neighboring Windsor County and he said the reasons aren’t entirely clear. Some of it has to do with the loss of manufacturing jobs, the 2008 economic recession, and challenges associated with the heroin epidemic and the perception that Rutland is somehow worse off than the rest of the state.
However Jepson and others believe the trend can be reversed or at least slowed, both by attracting young families to the region and convincing students to stick around after they’ve graduated.
“We believe we will see incremental change and that 5 years from now we hope to look back on this and say this is really working,” Jepson said.
Chrispin White, Director of the Center for Community engagement at Castleton University, says they have a database of 15,330 alumni and that roughly 7,500 have remained in state.
White said the figure came as something of a surprise because the dominant narrative is that young people and students are leaving Vermont en masse. Although nearly half of the alumni in the database have stayed or returned to Vermont it’s unclear how many are in Rutland. Jim Watson, who grew up in Rutland and now lives in Denver, Colorado, said he’s had several classmates from High School who’ve returned to Vermont but that most of them live in Burlington.
Cheryl Morse, a geographer at UVM who has studied migration in the state says the division between rural and urban areas is becoming more pronounced.
According to Morse one in four Vermonters live in Chittenden County. Meanwhile other parts of the state notably Essex, Rutland, and Windsor counties are losing people. “The gap is growing,” said Morse.
Vince Bolduc, a professor of sociology and anthropology at St. Michael’s college says while it may be true that young, well-educated people are leaving the state that tends to be the case in most places and should not be overstated. In a 2015 paper on Vermont’s domestic migration patterns, Bolduc pointed out that Vermont’s rate of growth is lower than the nation as a whole but not out of character with other New England states.
Yet Rutland faces its own demographic challenge and the marketing plan is aimed squarely at addressing it. According to the press release announcing the digital marketing campaign, “Stopping and reversing Rutland County’s population declines is critical to the economic health of the state and the Rutland/Killington region and is at the heart of the effort.”
The Killington Valley website will showcase the region’s trail riding opportunities and other recreational assets. It also includes a video that tries to connect the various outdoor amenities with what Rutland and other towns have to offer. Here you can mountain bike, ski, or hike during the day, have dinner in Rutland, and then go to the Paramount.
The hope Jepson says is that young folks in metropolitan areas will “fall in love with Vermont like we have.”