A first look at a new decennial census is always enlightening to study, to try to analyze the gains and the losses. This year’s census for Vermont is especially intriguing because of the dramatic increase in the population of the ski-related towns.
Analyzing Vermont statistically is always tricky because of its very small population — which at 640,000 is about the same as many mid-sized American cities — in relation to other states that count numbers in the millions. That’s the reason one finds Vermont at the top or the bottom of surveys of this or that.
The new high numbers for towns like Dover, Winhall, Ludlow, Killington and Stowe are surely prompted by families attracted to skiing — Mount Snow, Stratton, Okemo, Killington-Pico and Stowe-Mount Mansfield. But it’s a matter of speculation what percentage of them are second homes. The truth will be revealed when school enrollments are counted; it might be that the 2020 census will produce a slight reversal in the state’s longtime decline in public school enrollment. It is also probable that some persons of wealth have decided to buy a spare residence as a hedge against loss by flood, fire, tornado or rising tide at a time of intensifying climate change.
Vermont’s assets are many: vigorous recreational opportunities, a lively arts and culture scene, strong institutions of higher education, a good system of public schools with many options for private education, the aesthetic values of incomparable scenery, small-town traditions and values. The biggest challenge is the Vermont winter. At least the wintry days of 30 below zero are over, though there is the troublesome consideration that warmer winters threaten the ski industry that has attracted so many new residents here.
It can be argued that Vermont’s overall 10-year total gain of 2.8 percent, from 625,741 to 643,077 residents, is satisfactory, indicating stability. “Growth” itself should not be a goal anyway, certainly not uncontrolled growth, which is the philosophy of the cancer cell. Can we count on Act 250 to assure that growth is environmentally contained?
What happened in certain towns is curious. Take Marlboro, for example, with its increase of 644, for a total of 1,722, a 59.7 percent gain. The appeal couldn’t be Marlboro College, which has closed and is now an empty campus. The summer music festival there could account for some of the gain, but the increase is more likely because of some spillover from the Dover crowd. Wilmington saw a similar increase for the same reasons, 379 to 2,255.
Rutland, the city and county, were among the losers. Rutland City itself flourished in the 19th century as an economic powerhouse because of the railroad yards that dominated its center. But when that space became just a shopping center, the economic engine was minimized. Poultney-Castleton was also a losing region. Rockingham is an oddity, losing 450, but that general area of eastern Windham and Windsor counties, including Newfane, Putney and Springfield saw similar losses.
The greatest population gains, as expected, were in Burlington and the Chittenden County towns around it. In fact, if you add the new numbers for Chittenden, Franklin and Lamoille counties, which total 239,366, that’s more than half the state’s entire population.
A great relative gain, 7.73 percent, took place in tiny Grand Isle County, which offers attractive properties on the shore of Lake Champlain, but that’s based on total population of only 7,485. The county with least population is Essex, part of the Northeast Kingdom, with 6,021, having lost 4.61 percent in the decade.
Although there has been much interest in having a more diversified state racially, Vermont remains the next to whitest at 94.16 percent, with Blacks at only 1.36 percent, Asians at 1.68 percent, and American Indians or “some other race” at less than 1 percent. “Two or more races” came in at 2.02 percent.
In Bennington County towns in the Northshire gained modestly and the Southshire towns also lost modestly. Manchester gained 83 for 4,484, and Dorset increased 102 to 2,133. Bennington’s new population is 15,333, and the loss of 431 has been attributed to plant closures at Energizer, Plasan and TE Connectivity. Pownal’s is 3,258, having lost 269, perhaps largely for the same reason. But Shaftsbury held amazingly stable, gaining 8 residents for a total of 3,598.
The meaning of all these numbers, coordinated with more knowledge about the record number of out-of-state home buyers, will provide grist for sociological and demographic conversations in coming days.