Selectmen ponder aging population
Say they need state help to keep communities alive
WHATELY — Facing an aging population around Western Massachusetts, with an expected continued exodus of young people and a shrinking workforce, selectmen from Franklin and Hampshire counties say they need help from the state if their communities are going to survive economically in the decades ahead.
The roughly 70 members of the Franklin and Hampshire selectmen’s associations reacted to a University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute study saying that better funding for education and access to high-speed telecommunication are essential if the region is to escape the scenario of decline painted in “Long Term Population Projections for Massachusetts Regions and Municipalities.”
“In 2012, we had 40 percent of our population over the age of 55,” said Ashfield Selectboard member Ronald Coler. “By 2017, we’re going to have 60 percent. And you want to look at the kids fueling the engine? They’re not going to be there. … Our vacancy rate is anywhere between two-thirds and 50 percent in our regional school system.”
Coler said that with enormous transportation costs across sparsely populated regional districts and reimbursement rates that are a fraction of what was originally promised, “It’s strangling our towns. On top of that, what young family is going to want to move into Ashfield without broadband?”
Susan Strate, a co-author of the Donahue study released last fall, cautioned that the detailed population projection doesn’t take into account transportation developments such as expanded rail service, economy-focused initiatives like broadband extension, housing markets, college enrollment levels or national immigration policy changes or migration shifts.
“This doesn’t have to be the outcome,” said Pioneer Valley Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Timothy Brennan after Strate presented the picture of a shrinking workforce and therefore a smaller regional economy. “It depends on what we all do collectively to change the trajectory of where we’re all headed.”
In addition to efforts to expand north-south passenger rail and, farther out east-west rail, Brennan said, there has been an attempt to brand “the Knowledge Corridor” that extends along the Connecticut River Valley to Hartford and beyond, to include a population base of a more than million-member workforce and 41 colleges and universities. There are also efforts to develop more college internship programs as a way of keeping a larger share of that college-age population in the region after graduation.
The region has an attractive quality of life that can also help attract younger people, said Brennan, “but you have to offer amenities on top of that” such as bikeways and pedestrian facilities … It’s a way to bolster the already rich attractiveness that we have here, and that’s becoming more important as people make more of a connection between their physical activity and their health.”
Brennan said that reliable, high-speed rail “can be a game changer,” so that the workforce across a much wider region can better take advantage of the cost of living in western Massachusetts, but also because fewer young people are getting a driver’s license.
“Providing an alternative, a rail option, is very attractive to young folks, particularly if they can connect to bright-lights areas like Boston and New York and places beyond.”
But several selectmen reacted that rural towns face significant hurdles beyond those larger communities in the Pioneer Valley.
Whately Selectman Jonathan Edwards said, “It’s a marketing challenge” to convince people moving out of the Boston area that this region is an attractive place for growth.
“Maybe we need to demonstrate that this area is more affordable than other areas, to create a sexy image for this region better than what we’re doing. … This region does have a lot going for it.”
Yet Shelburne Selectman Joseph Judd said that without seriously solving the problem of access to high-speed Internet, “There’s no way you’re going to project a sexy image” in the hilltowns and allow businesses to grow … “That is the number one issue facing this county.”
Robert Andrews of Orange went to the issue of how small-town volunteer-run government can survive if younger residents will become fewer and less inclined to serve.
“You’ve got the older population, who has done it; they’re getting older, they can’t do it anymore. We’re getting fewer and fewer volunteers to fill those vacancies in the towns. You get the younger side, and they’re busy. … How do you get the government in the local towns back functioning the way they’re supposed to?”
The study shows Franklin County population totals remaining essentially stable over the next 1½ decades with a growing proportion of residents over 65 and a shrinking segment of young adults. Franklin County would lose about 2 percent of its 2010 population by 2030, while the state’s overall 4.4 percent growth over that period is slower than the 7.4 percent rate for the nation.
While the over-65 population here is projected to more than double, from 15.2 percent in 2010 to nearly 31.5 percent in 2030, the under-20 population is estimated to shrink from 22 percent in 2010 to 17 percent in 2030. The population segment between ages 25 and 54, now seen as the key working-age cohort, shows a decrease from 40 percent in 2010 to 32.6 percent in 2030.
Strate noted that a “huge factor” in what population growth Massachusetts has seen, particularly among younger age brackets, has been from international immigrants. A change in immigration policy at the national level could have an impact on the future of that population statewide.
“The projections are not written in stone,” Strate said.
The meeting with Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, pointed to another implication of the state’s population growth continuing more slowly than the national rate. “We’re on the danger list,” he warned, of losing another Congressional seat. “It’s a very troubling situation.
On the web: http://pep.donahue-institute.org
You can reach Richie Davis at: email@example.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269