New vision

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(HOST) We Vermonters are known for our expertise at conserving our land and natural resources, but commentator Bill Shutkin says current trends suggest that we may be less skilled when it comes to saving our other critical resource, our people.

(SHUTKIN) demographers are telling us that Vermont will soon have the second oldest population behind Maine, having lost roughly twenty percent of our twenty to thirty-four year-olds — twice the national average — in the last decade. Meanwhile, our workforce is shrinking and three quarters of our public schools have seen their enrollments decline since 2000.

I think what the demographers are really saying is that Vermonters need to begin to reimagine our economic and social policies if we want to have a future with more than just a few people in it. Perhaps we don’t, and would prefer to see Vermont the state replaced by Vermont the park, a continuous stretch of forest and farmland from Pownal to Peacham, flanked by Burlington and a scattering of gateway communities for tourists, telecommuters and those fortunate enough to make a living from their knowledge or their land.

If we want Vermont the state, however, it starts with a new vision, a twenty-first century approach that borrows from the best thinking in community development and civic renewal. There’s no magic involved, just the political will to do a number of things simultaneously, like invest in affordable housing, in downtown revitalization, in workforce development and in hi-tech infrastructure, measures that balance the desire to protect small town character and scenic landscapes with the imperative of attracting the young families and workers who comprise Vermont’s future generations.

A new vision for Vermont would build on the state’s recently enacted Growth Centers bill and the tried-and-true work of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board by creating a bold enterprise program to seed and support small to mid-size businesses from agriculture to green technology to internet retail. It would seek to recruit new immigrant communities who bring entrepreneurial energies and a strong work ethic and, in turn, help attract younger residents increasingly accustomed to cultural diversity and its myriad social benefits.

Next, we need to elevate our bedrock environmental law, Act 250, by making it Vermont’s human resources statute, its magnet for luring the developers and businesses who understand the relationship between quality development and quality of life. We need to compliment the Act’s emphasis on regulation with incentives like a green development fund and location efficiency credits to encourage sound land use decisions — for example, building affordable, energy-efficient modular townhouses near schools, stores and employment centers.

The environmentalist David Brower once said about pessimism, “It’s a luxury we can no longer afford.” I like to think about Vermont’s population estimates in the same spirit, as an opportunity disguised as something else. If we look at it this way, then no matter what the demographers say, the future looks bright.

Bill Shutkin is president of the Orton Family Foundation and a Research Affiliate at MIT.

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