Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Between the Lines: Lone Eagles Invade Midd

Is Middlebury irrevocably changing?

Maybe it's not just a quaint little college town anymore. Certainly it's much more than just an agricultural center in Addison County, "the land of milk and honey." Even the Chamber of Commerce has abandoned that slogan, though the milk and honey continue to flow.

For several decades now, Middlebury and Addison County have seen an historically significant influx of southern New Englanders and others drawn by the lively community life and astounding natural beauty. This is in itself a drastic change from decades past. For most of its history, Middlebury has grown quite slowly. Between 1950 and 1960, the town actually declined in population. But things turned around in the 60s, when Middlebury added a net of 793 people. Much of Vermont, for that matter has been remade in the past 45 years.

Now as the people behind this influx, and their parents, get older, signs of new change are everywhere. By one count several hundred new housing units are proposed for Middlebury. At least two proposals for large, residential-care developments for the elderly are on the drawing boards, and are probably soon to become a reality.
Aging former flatlanders and their parents are becoming an ever larger part of the local population, and developers are responding with projects they think will both keep elderly residents here and bring others to live in "continuing care" accommodations.

But there's another change under way, one based not on the decline of age but the growth of economic and social possibility. As the Internet makes it feasible for more and more people to make a good living and live just about anywhere, this area is increasingly populated by successful business people with no need to draw their income from the people and businesses of Vermont.

The new immigrants to Vermont still need to shop at local supermarkets and other local retailers. They certainly patronize the local stores (the cuter the better) and restaurants that are far too expensive for most people born here. But for the new immigrants, their income source is elsewhere.

Take what's happening on my little road. There are five houses, all but one built in the 21st century. In two of them reside college faculty members. In the other three houses on our lane are people whose financial well-being doesn't have much to do with the town in which we live.

For example, I make my living doing writing and strategic marketing for healthcare companies. My neighbors to the north, a young couple with a small boy, are an architect who oversees a development project in Charlottesville, Va., and a part-time attorney for one of the nation's largest law firms. Like myself, the attorney/mother relies on the phone and Internet to connect her to associates and clients in bigger, richer locales. Another of our neighbors raises shaggy Highland cattle in the Northeast Kingdom, grows tea in Hawaii, and does heaven knows what else. (Our little lane is not an isolated example. Another friend out in New Haven, with whom I once worked on the Valley Voice 30 years ago, draws her income from providing know-how on organic foods to a company based in Spain.)

True, the new "knowledge workers" aren't really typical. Most people who live in the Middlebury area make their living through an organization within an hour or so of town. The college and Porter Medical Center remain the largest employers, and that won't change anytime soon.

But the astounding mobility of American commerce -- and the endlessly imaginative and remunerative ways big American businesses and small entrepreneurs alike are using the Internet -- means that the nature of the county's population mix is changing.

That is both good and bad.

For the bad: Not needing to rely on the nearby community for an income source, people like me can come up with plenty of seemingly "good" reasons not to support the vital services that make this such a great place to live.

As one example, we are now paying quadruple the taxes on our Middlebury house that we paid for a house in California, which was valued at nearly twice our Middlebury residents. We get no direct return on the investment we are required to make in the local educational system, because we have no children.

Of course we get many indirect benefits, in the form of somewhat educated young people who spend many of their daylight hours in school instead of off making trouble somewhere, who can participate in colorful marching bands for Memorial Day and July 4, and who usually grow up to be productive citizens. But our direct financial incentive is to vote against increases in educational taxes. We probably won't do that, but having just received my tax bill, I have to tell you that I tempted.

For the good: We have chosen to live here precisely because there is so much of substance and satisfaction in places like Middlebury. Many of our contemporaries do have children and benefit from good schools. All of us know that the rich community life right outside our doors relies upon an attitude much more expansive than "what am I getting for my taxes dollars."

Tied by the lengthy and ubiquitous tether of the Internet to the international economy, we "lone eagles" are a different and growing kind of resident. We don't have to be here. We could just as well live in Raleigh, Santa Cruz, Ann Arbor, Santa Fe, or dozens of other nice places in other parts of the country. And yet we have quite consciously chosen to be Vermonters. Maybe that's the best thing about this group: We are here because we love it.

What does this change in the population mix mean for Middlebury and Addison County? I'll hazard a few guesses:

1. A large and ongoing boost to the local economy. In our household, we employ a part-time bookkeeper and house cleaner. But the indirect economic effects are much greater. Looking at my checkbook, I’m inclined to say we may have singlehandedly kept Agway and the local plant nurseries in business. I spent an ungodly amount of money on lift tickets last winter, and we're probably spending an equal amount this summer at the farmers market and natural foods co-op. Next door, as another example, my neighbors employ a nanny five days a week while Mom practices law and dad builds houses and preserves farmland.

2. Even more enthusiasm for community life. Whether it is the Town Hall Theater, the rich array of folk music, gallery open houses, or the seemingly endless supply of other worthy diversions, the lively community life of Addison County has been undeniably enriched by all of the flatlanders, new and old.

3. The continuing power of Middlebury College and local healthcare. Not only do they remain the largest employers. The aging demographics tie us tighter to nearby healthcare providers. And the college continues to be an enormous draw, providing virtually unparalleled cultural activities and intellectual life, given that we are town of less than 10,000 people. And I won’t even mention the enormous political sway the college still has.

4. Housing prices through the roof. There's a half-million-dollar house being built in my neighborhood. It's a terrific house, green woods to the south and expansive views westward. Who among Addison County natives can afford such a thing? Places like this and many other houses on the market, nice as they are, are way out of reach for most people who grew up here. This situation will only get worse. It's almost a tradition for people to grow up in Vermont and end up elsewhere, as any cursory reading of the state's history makes clear. But given the huge run-up in real estate prices (to which I have, alas contributed), we will see increasingly more of our local young people grow up and leave because they can't afford to live locally.

I have to say that on balance though, for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to afford to live here, Middlebury and environs are only getting better. I've watched that evolution over the past 35 years. Unless global warming or some unforeseen disaster takes us all down, the next 35 years will only be better.

[Do you have an opinion on these thoughts? If so, please post it to the blog!]

3 Comments:

Anonymous Jim Morse said...

It's not just the amount of taxes that is bothersome. It's the principle involved. Suppose you firmly believe that government should not be in the education business. In other words, suppose you believe that there should be a separation of school and state*, just as there is a separation of church and state.

The existence of schools that are financed by coercive taxation says to one and all that socialism is the one best way to educate children. Suppose that you vigorously disagree with this proposition. Why should the government have the power to tax you to finance that which you strongly oppose?

As Thomas Jefferson said, "To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."


----------

* See, e.g., "Separating School And State," by Sheldon Richman, which sets forth Richman's vision for a completely privatized educational system--privately financed, privately run, and free from government intervention. He shows how such a system could solve most of the problems that beset our current system.

The first part of Chapter 1 is on amazon.com ( here ) and Chapter 3 is here. The book is blurbed by John Taylor Gatto (1991 New York Teacher of the Year and author of "Dumbing Us Down") and others here.

(I realize this is a bit of a tangent from the main thrust of your "Lone Eagles Invade" post, but property taxes are a problem and not just because they are high.)

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