Saturday February 23, 2013

Does the graying of Vermont have a silver lining?

It has finally happened: Vermont’s steady population growth has slowed, sputtered, stalled and is now officially declining.

I suppose it depends on who you are and what your interests are when it comes to deciding if this is a good thing or a bad thing. The jury is still out as far as I’m concerned, but a lot of the indicators are not pretty. It’s probably a good time to step back and take a hard look at where we are and what we want from the place we call home. The thing is, everyone’s going to see it differently.

So here we are, landlocked, yet a short drive from about 20 million people living in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Every one of the aforementioned states has large metro areas that deal with a plethora of problems far more serious than anything we deal with here. For many years, people escaped those problems and moved here, only now they seem to have stopped.

Additionally, the birth rate is not keeping up with the death rate in Vermont. The young people leave and never come back. The remaining population is aging, and we will soon be a geriatric state.

There are other factors at play in Vermont.

If you want to build anything, you are faced with a regulatory nightmare that did not happen by accident. If you thought that declining population would actually help lower the tax burden by having to educate fewer children, you’d be wrong. Even with school populations declining, education continues to cost more every year for any number of reasons, most of them perfectly legitimate.

Fuel costs to run the plows and vehicles that it takes to maintain roads continue to increase, and have you checked your electric bill lately?

We are clearly facing some big challenges in Vermont; issues that are local and global. The impact of the Internet on retail business has had a major impact. We do not conduct business in the way we once did. The postal service is changing. Book stores, travel agencies, clothing retailers, major chains ... all of it is evolving before our eyes, and at a very rapid pace. Manufacturing is no longer what it was with businesses moving to China and robotics eliminating assembly and welding jobs, and on and on. We are still in the throes of a revolution that started with computers, and they affect just about everything.

You could interpret this with a lot of gloom and doom, but opportunities are still popping up in places you would never expect, and that is most likely what will drive the future of our state.

The silver lining is there, although it is hard to make out some days. It lies in innovation, craftsmanship, agriculture, and infrastructure. As long as people have needs, somebody out there is going to find a way to meet them. That’s where Vermont has been able to keep its head above water. We’ve been fortunate to be in a place where innovation, inventiveness and vision have always prevailed. We are seeing a revolution in agriculture in Vermont. Where milk was once the product that drove the farms, it is now a diversified market that is demanding more natural products. We are seeing more farms that have reinvented themselves to supply products that are in demand such as grass-fed beef and poultry. The longer this has been going on, certain brand loyalties have been established, more sophisticated distribution channels have evolved and new markets have been opened up.

Vermont has been the host to many lost arts that have come back into vogue. High-end auto restorers dot the countryside. Glass blowers, beer producers, metal forges, jewelry makers, furniture craftsmen and a host of other cottage industries have been established here. The hospitality business has evolved to something more than just the ski industry. Yeah, much of this is small stuff, but some of it fulfilled its potential, and there are more waiting in the wings to duplicate that success.

While there’s plenty of reason for gloom and doom, there’s also a lot of reason to be hopeful. We’ve got one of the biggest markets in the world just a few hours drive to our south, and as a state we need to determine what they want to improve their quality of life, without having them all move here and destroy ours.  We simply need better communications infrastructure, and a state government that is more responsive to innovative business. Hang on, because its probably going to be a bumpy ride.

Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.