“New Hampshire ‘Middle-Child’ Towns” by Plan NH Board President, Rob Dapice
I recently watched a TEDX talk by UNH Rural Extension employee Geoff Sewake (watch it HERE) on the power of rural attractiveness for small communities like the one where he lives in North Haverhill. I recommend the talk. It got me thinking about my own town.
As Geoff points out, people in the North Country, particularly those in communities with populations that are aging and shrinking, could do well by welcoming young adults who are attracted to those places, or those who have an existing connection to these communities, in order to make them more likely to stay.
He repeats “hey, hello, what’s up” as a means of emphasizing how informal this welcoming approach can be. He discusses how young adults can really contribute and make a difference in these communities that have been so depleted by outmigration. And, how showing up to two meetings in a row, for just about any board or committee, will likely result in their being invited to join.
I have lived for five years in Hopkinton, a town of 5,600 just west of Concord. Hopkinton is somewhere near the middle (demographically and geographically) of state trends. Hopkinton and many other communities in New Hampshire are expected to have approximately stagnant populations. I liken our situation to that of the middle child: not as outstanding as the first born and not as one might think. No explosive growth. No ominous decline. A stable population should make everyone happy. No problem, right?
In middle child communities like this one, the question is not so much “will we disappear” or “will we be overwhelmed” but the more complicated and touchy “who are we and who do we want to be?”. This is something that Plan NH Executive Director Robin Leblanc touches on when she says frequently “Communities in our state are so used to planning for growth; they need to start planning for change.”
To illustrate this, observe that certain communities in our state’s southern tier seem to still be booming. For example, Stratham has grown 14% between 2000 and 2010. Then, consider the population of Coos County that has remained virtually unchanged during that same time period and is predicted by the OEP to shrink over the next 30 years. The overall feeling of impending growth or decline makes up an essential backdrop that informs how many citizens are inclined to think about their communities. This shapes discussions and decisions on school budgets, zoning, and economic development.
Hopkinton has the seventh highest property tax rate in the state and has historically had higher taxes than neighboring towns which mostly seem to either have a stronger commercial tax base, a less costly school system, or both. Combined with the reality of declining school enrollments over the past decade, this has made the annual school budget rather contentious.
There are lots of good people involved in the perennial debate over school spending in Hopkinton and the details of what might be cut and what should be cut are not important here. I find the ways in which debaters on both sides seem to bypass each other with arguments interesting. They find their personal arguments compelling, but their reasoning can ring hollow among those whom they are trying to convince.
One frequently cited consequence of a high tax rate is that it will result in more people moving out of town. Assuming the high tax rate is the result of an expensive and well-regarded school system, as is the case in my town, it will also attract in-migration among families who move to town for the school system. This group of new residents who are attracted by the schools certainly includes, but is not limited to, families led by wealthy professionals.
Those who favor a higher school budget often invoke the testimony of other young families who have chosen Hopkinton because of the good school system. My family constitutes a data point in that argument. Those who favor a lower school budget in order to reduce taxes prefer to cite examples of people they have known who have left town because of the taxes. I know a few of the people; they are not imaginary. In some cases, they vacate homes that are then occupied by young-professional families whose stories will be used to justify our current approach to budgeting.
Should town policy favor longtime residents on fixed incomes to ensure that the community retains its character? Or should it be crafted to draw enough younger and wealthier people to town so that our town can buck the demographic trends of stagnation/decline? Of course, there is no easy answer.
I grew up in a town that has been so overwhelmed by rich people that I feel like it has become unrecognizable in the two decades since I left; it is not an accident that I chose not to return to it when I moved back to New England. If we continue down the road of high-performance, high-cost schools without restraint, we will become another Concord, Massachusetts in a decade or two; people will come for the schools and will be seen hammering the “For Sale” signs into their front yard the day after high school graduation.
However, the schools are a real attraction for Hopkinton. Like every New Hampshire town that depends on volunteers to keep the machinery working, Hopkinton is a better town for its tireless volunteers. Many of these volunteers were attracted to Hopkinton because of the school system. The School Board and the Superintendent deserve credit, in my opinion, for presenting a conservative and responsible school budget.
But the school budget is not the point here. The point is we all need to listen to each other. If you are preparing to make an argument that is incredibly resonant with you—about how you and your friends all moved to town because of the great schools, stop for a moment. Consider how your argument might sound to someone whose longtime friend and neighbor just moved out. And, to be fair to my demographic peers, if you are getting ready to stand up at a public meeting and tell those of us who want to improve their school system that they should move to Massachusetts, be respectful of the fact that not everyone who loves New Hampshire shares an identical philosophy.
Of course, school funding is an incredibly contentious issue in New Hampshire, especially its middle-child towns; I think that listing the lawsuits over state funding of education in the past 20 years would make for a longer document than this essay. But that is a topic for another day.