Margolis: Rubbing elbows in the new, richer Vermont

The Church Street Marketplace in Burlington. File photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

(Jon Margolis writes political columns for VTDigger.)

Want to make Vermont richer and more populous in one fell swoop?

Just put a big city in the middle of it, or within 50 miles of its borders.

That’s as far as Boston is from New Hampshire, which explains why New Hampshire is as rich and populous as it is.

Vermont has no Bostonial equivalent. Albany, New York, is too small. Montreal is across an international border and a language divide.

So Vermont is going to have to figure out another way to get richer and bigger.

Assuming this is what it wants to do.

Gov. Phil Scott does. In his campaign last year, Scott said he hoped the state’s population grew by about 70,000 — to about 700,000 — in a decade. While the state’s overall population is stable, Scott called attention to a decline in the number of working-age people.

“From 2010 to 2016,” he said in his budget address in January, “we lost an average of 2,300 workers per year from the workforce. … With stagnant population growth, these declines mean working-age Vermonters make up a smaller portion of our population, … (and) a shrinking workforce creates a downward spiral.”

Just a few days before that speech, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce released the latest report of its Vermont Futures Project, which suggested attracting almost 11,000 new residents into the state every year by 2040.

The report doesn’t specify when this influx would start or how long it would last. But it seems to be envisioning a population of close to a million a few decades hence.

Is this possible?

And, given the Futures Project’s commitment to “preserve Vermont’s quality of life,” is it desirable?

It isn’t impossible, noted Saint Michael’s College sociology professor Vince Bolduc, pointing out that in the past, growth has been spurred by new companies such as Ben & Jerry’s, Burton Snowboards and IBM that started in or moved to Vermont thanks to “out-of-state people who fell in love with Vermont.”

But not impossible doesn’t mean at all likely. Populations surge when foreign immigrants flock to an area, a valuable natural resource is discovered, the federal government invests billions, or low wages inspire producers to move their facilities from higher-paying areas.

Nothing like that looms in Vermont’s immediate future. Nor are droves likely to relocate here for the weather. People have been leaving all of the Northeastern states for decades, heading south and west for jobs, for cheaper houses, for lower taxes, for warmer temperatures.

So if Vermont really wants more people, maybe it should think about creating that city.

Because that’s where the economy is growing and people are moving. Check “Where The Money Is,” the map prepared by the howmuch.net website (owned by fix.com, which connects customers with remodeling firms). Using data from the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, the map shows that economic growth is almost entirely taking place in metropolitan areas, especially the five biggest: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Dallas.

The economy of Vermont’s only metro area — greater Burlington — is too inconsequential to show up on the map. But that metro area — in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties — is getting richer and more populous. Like non-metro areas all over the country, the rest of the state is not.

That raises the possibility that if either the governor or the Future Project can figure out how to get thousands to move to Vermont (which realistically cannot raise a new city out of the ether by wishing for it), all the newcomers would crowd into Chittenden County and environs while the rest of the state continues to wither away.

That’s not the governor’s plan. Neither is it the hope of Jeff Lewis of the Lewis & Stromsten economic consulting firm, which wrote the Vermont Futures report.

“We feel there’s a significant opportunity (for economic development) downtown or close to downtown” in the smaller cities, Lewis said.

But he did not dispute that rural and small town Vermont might be facing a bleak future.

“If we do nothing, we won’t stay the same,” he said. “Our small towns will continue to get smaller and weaker.”

What neither Lewis nor Scott nor apparently anyone else can figure out is just what the opposite of doing nothing is going to be. Or as Kenneth Jones put it, “the problem is the how.”

“I love the (Futures) report,” said Jones, the economic research analyst at the Agency of Commerce and Community Development and Vermont’s generally recognized demography authority. “It gets people thinking.” It does not explain how to get thousands of outsiders to move in.

The only specific proposal in the Futures Report is to spend $200,000 to market Vermont, and not even Lewis or Vermont Chamber of Commerce President Betsy Bishop thinks this will be very effective. The report is aspirational, not prescriptive.

“We do not have a plan yet,” Bishop said. “We are working on a plan. We want to get to the pace of 10,000 (newcomers a year), but it’s not going to happen all at once.”

It isn’t as though there is some policy the state could adopt (or abandon) to attract new residents. Jones said Vermont’s basic demographic situation has not changed much over the years. The birth rate has declined, a change that “tends to be aligned with affluence,” he noted, as well as the state’s older population. In-migration may have slowed simply because there are fewer (proportionately) of the 30-ish-year-olds who relocate to Vermont for its quality of life.

That quality, of course, could be threatened by tens of thousands of new residents. Without a strong, statewide system of planning, zoning and well-crafted incentives (and disincentives), they could all end up living in subdivisions sprawled over what used to be farmland.

Most economists agree that a state need not become more populous to become more prosperous. But Jones said the decline of working-age people in Vermont could create a risk to the state’s prosperity. “It’s hard to envision a plan for a healthy economy when the workforce is decreasing,” he said.

And he noted that Vermonters might have to consider the possibility that if thousands of new residents could be wooed, the vast majority of them might opt for Chittenden County.

“People love cities,” he said. “Burlington would become a more vital city. I can see why people would say that would be a good thing.”

It might. But what would become of the rest of the state?

Vince Bolduc raised another possible drawback of adding thousands more Vermonters.

“More people demand greater bureaucratization and formality of social organization,” he said. “One of the great charms of a small state is that it is so easy to build and maintain social capital.”

But what else is new? For at least a century, Americans (and Europeans) have been trading intimacy for prosperity. As a society gets richer, it also gets more impersonal, more standardized, less spontaneous. Along with a few other rural precincts, Vermont has remained something of a holdout. It may not be able to remain one.

Material for a good novel, if only anyone could write it.

Jon Margolis

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