Business & Economy

Woolf: Don't count on influx of urbanites to solve Vermont population woes

St. Albans City Hall
St. Albans City was the only Franklin County community that showed a significant population decline. File photo by Peng Chen/VTDigger

Art Woolf is a columnist for VTDigger. He recently retired as an associate professor of economics at the University of Vermont. 

Vermont’s population has stagnated since the 2010 Census and the latest Census estimates show that population stagnation and decline is widespread across the state with only a few pockets of growth.

On July 1, 2019, there were 1,890 fewer people in Vermont than nine years earlier, a decline of 0.3%. Over the same period the U.S. population increased by 6.1%. 

New numbers from the Census Bureau show that 92 Vermont towns and cities added population, 159 shrank, and five had the same population in 2019 as in 2010.  But even among the growing towns, only nine grew faster than the U.S. average.

Population decline was widespread in the four southern counties and the Northeast Kingdom. In Windsor County, only six towns experienced population growth over the past nine years; in Windham only one — Townshend — grew, and it has four more people than in 2010. In Bennington County no town has more people today than in 2010.

Out of the 28 towns in Rutland County, only six have more people than in 2010 and five of those grew by fewer than six people. The biggest growth was in Rutland Town, which added a scant 29 people. For all practical purposes, no Rutland County towns experienced any significant population growth.

The situation is similar in the Northeast Kingdom. Only six Caledonia County towns grew, and none by more than 20 people. Tiny Essex County had only one town growing by more than five people and six had growth of between one and five. 

In only two Orleans County towns did population grow. Jay added 50 people, probably due to the expansion-related activity at Jay Peak Ski Area.  But the Census also found an improbable 2,957 people living in Newport Town, 84% more than in 2010. If you believe those numbers, Newport was clearly the fastest growing town in Vermont, both in absolute numbers and in percentage terms. I am firmly convinced the Census Bureau estimate is a mistake. So, Orleans County is no different than the rest of the Kingdom.

The only region of Vermont showing any growth is northwestern Vermont. In Chittenden County, only two towns had fewer people in 2019 than in 2010, and both declines — Bolton losing two people and Jericho 11 — were tiny. 

Franklin County had only four towns with fewer people over the nine-year period and only one, St. Albans City, showed any significant decline. All five towns in Grand Isle County added population. Addison County bucked the Northwest trend. Fifteen towns lost population and seven gained.

In Lamoille County, only Hyde Park’s population shrank, but only by five people. The rest all showed growth. Washington County was a mixed bag, with seven towns growing and 13 shrinking.

Orange County also showed a mixture of shrinking and growing towns, with nine growing and eight declining in population. 

Northwest Vermont clearly dominates the list of the fastest growing towns in the state. Of the 25 towns with the highest growth rates, 21 of them are within a 40-mile radius of Burlington as are 31 of the top 50.

While Vermont population trends show significant geographical diversity, one common theme is a widespread population decline among Vermont’s traditional cities. Only Winooski and Burlington had higher populations in 2019 compared to 2010, and both grew by only 1% over the nine-year period.

The other traditional cities — St. Albans City, Newport City, St. Johnsbury, Montpelier, Barre City, Middlebury, Bellows Falls, Springfield, Rutland City, Bennington and Brattleboro — all lost population. Indeed, all of them except Burlington, Winooski and Middlebury have fewer residents today than they had 20 years ago.

Vermont’s overall population stagnation, the regional changes, and declining city populations have been going on for a decade or more.  Will Covid-19 change that? 

Peoples’ responses to the Covid-19 pandemic may lead to out-migration from big cities for a presumably safer rural lifestyle. If so, will that mean people will move to rural Vermont in general? Or will they just move out to the exurban areas farther from central urban cores of major metro areas in the U.S.? 

Will people from Boston and New York move to Vermont but still want to be close to those cities? If so, that could reverse the southern Vermont population decline. Southern Vermont is a lot closer to Boston and New York than Chittenden County. 

Or will people still want some variant of the urban lifestyle they left?  Does that mean a reversal of the population decline in Vermont’s traditional cities? Are Brattleboro, Bennington and Rutland urban enough for urbanites? Or does it mean more people moving into Vermont’s only Census metropolitan area, the greater Burlington area and Chittenden County? 

The last time I heard serious conversations about these issues was after 9/11, when many people thought there would be an exodus of people from cities that terrorists would target, and Vermont would see an influx of urban refugees. That didn’t happen. We should be cautious about assuming a similar Covid-19 outcome.

In the meantime, we will get a better picture, a true count, not an estimate, of the population of Vermont towns and cities when the 2020 Census results are tabulated and released. Unfortunately we’ll have to wait until spring 2021 for those numbers.

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Art Woolf

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