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New Hampshire “Middle-Child” Towns

by Guest Blogger | Feb 16th, 2016 | Leave a comment

“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?

hopkintonbridge
photo: wikimedia commons

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.

Hopkintonsdsign
photo: www.hopkintonschools.org

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.

HopkintonNH_TownHall

 

 

 

Communities for All Ages

by Robin LeBlanc | May 05th, 2015 | Leave a comment

Think of your favorite town. Why is this place special? How would you enhance this community you already love?  Last month UNH Cooperative extension, Citizen’s Institute for Rural Design, the National Endowment for the Arts and Plan NH worked alongside other organizations and City of Franklin residents to explore “Aging in Place.” Throughout the weekend, we discovered the love residents of Franklin have for their community. Many wish to stay there.

In Franklin, like many NH and United States communities, the population of baby boomers turning 65 is on the rise.  According to AARP, ten-thousand people turn 65 every day.  Eighty percent of those people want to remain in their current communities as they age.

“Franklin for A Lifetime” guest speakers Jennifer Wallace-Brodeur from AARP, Philip B. Stafford from Indiana University and Josh Bloom from the CLUE group, among others, made it clear: “Aging in Place” does not focus on those who are elderly. Instead an age-friendly community is one that is livable for anyone. Think of “Aging” not as a medical condition but as change. We age, every day. Lifestyle, availability to resources, transportation, environmental stimuli and personal happiness need consideration when adapting for that change.

As we reflect on the takeaways and anticipate Franklin’s next steps, we will be sharing a series of blog posts addressing some key points from the experts at “Franklin for A Lifetime” Workshop.

Stay tuned! In the meantime, check out these sites for more information:

Calculate your community’s livability score or discover AARP’s 8 domains of livability

Does where you live support aging in place or community?

by Robin LeBlanc | Dec 09th, 2014 | Leave a comment

We recently attended the Tri-State (ME, NH, VT) Roundtable on Aging.  Maine is certainly light-years ahead of most states in addressing the issue.  (Maine)  Speaker of the House Mark Eves opened the day and  told us about the Maine Aging Initiative – one of collective impact (although he did not use that term) in intent as “Maine’s business, finance, health care and higher education leaders working with aging advocates .. find innovative ways to help older adults age in in place and build a stronger workforce.” (from program description).

The morning continued with three viewpoints about the economic impacts and challenges of an aging population in our rural states.  Not only is money spent differently (and in many cases, less of it), there is a growing awareness of the impact on our local governments – fewer dollars to support them, as well as fewer people to run them.

(Will these smaller towns fade away?  We think not.  But they will need to change their governance structures, and rethink their places/roles in their regions. )

But back to aging in place, or aging in community.  What does this mean?  Aging in place means being able to stay in your own home as you get older and your needs change.  Aging in community means that even if you don’t stay in the home where you raised your family, or have lived since you were born, you can still stay in the same town as you age.

Keep in mind, this applies to all of us – it is not about them, or, as one of my favorite editorialists would say, The Other.

What do we in our towns and neighborhoods need to be thinking about to support our aging friends, family and – yep, selves?

This is new territory for us.  Never before on the planet have we had such a great percentage of folks past their “prime” years.  While many in their mid-sixties and even seventies do not consider themselves elderly, or even old, at some point we are all going to face mobility issues, sight and/or hearing issues, and/or even cognitive challenges that go with getting older.

This is, indeed a double-whammy.  Not for everyone, but many will experience both age and disability.  (Today, almost 20% of the US population is considered “disabled” in some way.  Couple that with aging, and one estimate has that by 2030 – not far away – fully a third of the population will be over 65 or have a disability – or both.)

Certainly, there are many, many approaches to addressing this, and there is lots of good work going on right here in the Granite State.

But it’s the built environment and its role that has not been tackled yet.  That’s where Plan NH, and its Vibrant Villages NH initiative, come in.   This is what we will be exploring for the foreseeable future.

Community design.  Viable options for getting people around.  Choices for living spaces (eg, for downsizing, for accommodating challenges).  Having amenities nearby.  These are all elements of a healthy community anyway – now we will also need to focus on those that support and aging population.

Look at where YOU live or work.  How easy will it be to be there in 10 or 20 years? From no steps (inside and out) to smooth, wide (well-lit) sidewalks to wide doorways to accommodate a wheelchair … there are many things to consider.  How would you get groceries, your hair cut, to a doctor or dentist when you no longer drive?

We have a lot to learn about this, and we will be doing so in the months ahead and sharing with planners, designers and developers as well as municipal folks themselves.  And you, Dear Reader. Stay tuned.