Over the past year, politicians and business groups identified the need for Vermont’s population to grow to 700,000 in order to meet our anticipated work force needs and to financially fuel the social, environmental and community programs that define Vermont. This need is driven by the retiring ‘boomer’ generation and the lack of any significant in-migration of younger workers. Those numbers are based on sound research and we reject them at our peril. Two questions to consider are whether we can expect to hit 700 in a reasonable period of time and, if we are the least bit skeptical, how do we craft sound economic development and fiscal spending policies that hedges against that skepticism.
As always, history is a good place to start. While not determinative in the absolute, it nevertheless is instructive. Since the 1940 census, Vermont’s population has grown by approximately 330,000 thousand persons with the vast majority coming to our state between 1960 and 1990. That was the period of the great urban out-migration along with the ‘back to the land’ ethos of urban ex-pats. Recently, our population growth has tailed off and, not surprisingly, it correlates with regional economic and demographic shifts (companies and employees choosing warmer and less expensive climates) along with the new urbanization recognizable in places like Brooklyn; Austin; Seattle and; Raleigh-Durham. To hit 700, our population needs to expand by roughly 70,000 persons. How long will this take when business and migration trends point in other directions?
With younger professionals favoring communities that combine an urban vibe with politically progressive policies, it is not surprising that Burlington has recently been making the list of cities that are finding favor with businesses looking to expand or relocate. Burlington, however, is not the state and while the state may feel some of the bounce from this new urbanization, most of Vermont is not as well positioned to capitalize on the trend. On the plus side, as our Governor notes, we will continue to welcome new Americans and provide them with the education and skill training that will lead to gainful employment.
So, the question, again, is: can we hit 700 in time to kick our economy out of the anemic performance it’s shown during the last decade and a half? In addition, if we do, have we the infrastructure to absorb it? Is there sufficient housing stock at the desired price points and in desired locations? Will public transportation exist to obviate the need for expanded roadways? Can our schools handle an increase in students without skyrocketing costs and the attendant tax rate increase? There are more questions – but there are few obvious answers. The point in raising these issues is to state what is obvious: Vermont must craft economic development policies based on marginal population growth. At the same time, we must work to convince working age employees and new businesses ventures that Vermont aligns with their social, environmental and community values and that our state is a great place to locate a business and launch a career. We have to understand the structural challenges that population growth will bring and have strategies to address them. Make no mistake, the target and need is real but our gambit cannot be based assuming we’ll hit 700 in the near term. It is far safer to use conservative growth assumptions for population, wage and tax growth. It is better to work hard and enjoy a pleasant surprise than to work hard and find that we have missed the mark.
By Tom Torti, President, Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce for the Chamber’s Main Street Newsletter (MSN). Visit our website to read more from this newsletter and more.