Eyeing the future: The needs for a better Manchester
Looking back over the last five or six years we've done a lot to position Manchester for the post-recession economy. The multi-million dollar Roundabout project, which will usher in a downtown renaissance, is almost complete. The parking lot in the historic Depot District, once the eyesore of the neighborhood, now serves as an asset to this mixed-use neighborhood. The Depot District, as well as most of Depot Street and Main Street, is served by a free Wi-Fi network. The newly built Park House will serve as an anchor to the Town's first-class park system.
Looking toward the future, and with the roundabout project nearly complete, it is time to revisit the Depot Street corridor. The current configuration, designed solely to facilitate the flow of vehicular traffic, is more of a highway through the center of Town. With the help of a state planning grant, the Planning Commission will be reconsidering design options that may help to calm traffic and create a more welcoming, pedestrian-friendly environment.
More broadly, the community recently started "Manchester 2020," a process designed to help identify and solve the broad range of challenges that face our community. Phase two of Manchester 2020 is scheduled for April 11 at 6:30 PM at Burr and Burton Academy.
With so much participation during phase one, we had no shortage of good ideas. We heard countless times that we need more nightlife; residents voiced a desire for more access to the Battenkill River; there is a clear desire for a downtown food co-op. These are just a few of the interesting ideas voiced during the sessions. It was also great to see so many active younger participants (less than forty years of age) at Manchester 2020; it also brings up a significant demographic issue.
The good news is that unlike many towns in Bennington County, and Vermont overall, our population continues to increase. In the last Census, Manchester overtook Stowe in population, and our growth rate of 4.9 percent was greater than that of both Bennington County (0.4 percent) and the State of Vermont (2.8 percent). The concerning demographic trend is that our "population pyramid" really isn't a pyramid - it is more of an hourglass, thick on the bottom and top and thinner in the middle.
We have residents under 20, and residents over 40. Statistically speaking, people move away in their 20's and 30's and return after 40. Between 2000 and 2010, the 20-39 age group shrank, the under 20 group remained steady, and the over 40 population continued to grow, representing the majority of the general population growth. Between 2000 and 2010 the Town's median age increased more than five years, from 44.0 to 49.2 years. In 2010 we were 7.7 years older than Vermont's median age, which is already considered an older population state compared to the United States as a whole. One of the biggest goals moving forward should be to increase our 20 to 39 year old demographic. Younger workers bring energy, innovation and new ideas. Every modern thriving economy, whether local or national, has a strong population of young workers. How do we attract and retain younger workers? Generally speaking, we need to put out the "welcome mat" - brand our community as a vibrant place for younger workers and offer the social and recreational amenities that they want. We need to attract this critical demographic, but at the same time we need to maintain our appeal to young families so that we can retain single young workers as they transition to family life.
We need to tackle the major challenges that limit our ability to attract and retain younger workers: housing, nightlife, access to education, and, of course, good paying jobs.
Housing in Manchester is expensive. Our median house value is $341,700, compared to Bennington County at $204,000 and Vermont at $213,000. This obviously makes Manchester a stretch for many younger workers. In Manchester, a family would need to earn around $72,000 in order to qualify for the average mortgage (assuming a 10 percent down payment). Meanwhile, our median household income is $50,671, or about $21,000 below the estimated income needed to afford the median house in Manchester. This gap needs to be closed, in part by attracting more good paying jobs to Manchester.
Many younger workers, especially singles, don't want to live in traditional neighborhoods or on forty acres, and some would rather rent than own. They want to live in modern housing near people their own age, in an energetic downtown filled with coffee shops, a variety of restaurant cuisine, and gastropubs (imagine, a pub with good food). Of course, younger workers want to stay out well past the street lights going on. This points to the word we heard so often at the Manchester 2020 sessions, from multiple generations - nightlife.
Many younger workers want access to job and trades training, continuing education and higher education. This increased access would certainly be built on our community's already well-trained and well-educated workforce. Not surprisingly, more than half (51.6 percent) of Manchester's residents over the age of 25 have an associates (5.1 percent), bachelors (30.8 percent) or graduate degree (15.7 percent). This is compared to 42 percent in Vermont and 40 percent in Bennington County. I believe it is an achievable goal to attract an institution of higher learning to Manchester through the establishment of a satellite campus, using existing facilities.
We need to compete more with our neighbors for visitors (aka, tourists), who bring vitality and dollars to our downtown economy. Beds are the foundation of a tourism economy, but over the past several years, with the closing of the Worthy Inn (Village Country Inn), Manchester has lost, not gained, valuable motel and hotel beds. We are undoubtedly losing overnight guests to surrounding communities, including Rutland and Bennington, and of course Stratton. We should lure more overnight guest to stay, eat and shop in Manchester while they ski at nearby Stratton, Bromley and Magic. More beds, whether developed with local or external capital, especially in the downtown corridors will provide greater opportunities to all Manchester businesses, and support more of the businesses that younger workers want, like local restaurants and shops. More beds will also allow more opportunities for larger events and sports tournaments.
Based on the housing and income statistics presented above, however, the tourism sector will not likely create all the higher paying jobs (at or above $72,000 household income) needed for a family (or single person) to afford the typical $341,700 house in Manchester. In most cases, this income will come from employment opportunities outside the tourism sector, like publishing, intellectual property, finance, law, clean industry, technology, research and development and other traditional 9 to 5 businesses. We already have successful businesses like these here in Manchester but we need more of them in order to close the gap between income and housing costs. We should also encourage more cyber-commuting, which allows residents to earn income from large corporations, and develop shared workspace and incubators.
As you might expect, these are the industries that other communities nationwide are also trying to attract. Working with the local Chamber of Commerce and the Vermont Department of Travel and Tourism, the Town has developed a marketing campaign and website, UCanVT.com, designed to attract visitors and second homeowners to relocate their businesses to Manchester. We could and should do much more to attract these types of businesses to Manchester.
Manchester has made tremendous progress over the last several years. Working together we have transformed many of our challenges into strengths. Manchester 2020 gives us an excellent opportunity to identify priorities and formulate real plans to implement desired outcomes. Working together we can build on prior successes and make Manchester an even better place to live, work, build a successful business and raise a family.
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