Matt Harrington, the executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, knows better than to promote his town as a happening place for the young and the restless.
“It’s tough to live in rural Vermont if you are 21 to 27 years old,” said Harrington, who is 34. “Madison’s (a popular Bennington restaurant and bar) closes at 10, 10:30. There’s no nightlife.”
But for the still-pretty-young, those over 28, Harrington sees Bennington as a paradise of sorts: a place where you can find a great job at a small company where you’ll get a chance to try out many different roles; a community where you know your neighbors; and a small but dynamic growing ecosystem where opportunities for public service and civic engagement abound.
For those in their late 20s and beyond, “Vermont becomes very attractive,” said Harrington, who grew up in neighboring Hoosick Falls, N.Y. “It is picturesque, and you can raise your family in a safe place and telecommute or work in Albany or Williamstown.”
It’s very well-known that Vermont needs more young people. It’s older on average than the rest of the country. And in this small state of 625,000 souls, southern Vermont has been particularly hard hit by demographic trends. Statewide, Vermont’s population barely grew between 2014 and 2018. In southern Vermont’s Bennington, Rutland and Windham counties, the population dropped 4% to 5% in that period, a trend that is expected to continue. Meanwhile, the population grew 5% in Chittenden County in that period and nearly 6% nationally.
The area also has some structural problems that have nothing to do with demographics. Energizer announced in October it was closing its plant in downtown Bennington, putting an estimated 100 people out of work. And nearby North Bennington is still dealing with the fallout from the 2016 discovery of the toxic chemical PFOA in hundreds of drinking water wells.
Like the administration of Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, the board of the Bennington Area Chamber has made attracting people to the region its No. 1 goal. The chamber welcomes all people, but particularly young people who might stick around to fill some of the professional and civic roles that will be vacated as the incumbents retire — and build up the town and state’s diminishing tax base. It’s an ambitious goal shared by chambers in rural areas around the country as young people move to more populous places.
To that end, Harrington this year started looking at ways to activate the young professionals in the community. Noticing that a group called the Northshire Young Professionals had only three members, he approached them about joining forces with the Bennington Young Professionals (with membership that Harrington estimated at 375) in 2018 to create Shires Young Professionals, of which Harrington is now chair.
In December, Harrington surveyed the young professionals. Like many of its peers at other chambers, the group applies the word “young” pretty loosely; the group’s members range in age from early-20s to mid-40s.
About a third of the 60 survey respondents had just joined the young professional group, and half had lived in the area for 10 or more years. Nearly a third said a job had brought them to the state or kept them there. Another 27% said they liked the lifestyle, and 23% said they chose Vermont to be near friends and family.
Most cited outdoor recreation, nature, fresh food and the small town feel as reasons to live in Vermont. Others mentioned quality of life and “quirkiness.” Drawbacks included low wages, salaries, and possibilities for job mobility; expensive housing and childcare; and limited wifi and cell service. Nearly a fifth of respondents said it was difficult to find romantic partners in such a limited population base, and 70% said they would like to see more festivals, performances and community events.
To Harrington, the survey — and recent investment in some derelict buildings in downtown Bennington — show that there’s a way to turn things around; it just needs to be strategic. That means attracting skiers, snowboarders, and others who love the outdoors, and drawing in more entertainment geared to people in their late 20s and beyond.
“I don’t think we should be putting a lot of effort into attracting 24-year-olds here,” said Harrington. “Let’s not try to be something we’re not. We’re not New York City; we’re not even Saratoga. We kind of have to own what we are.”
That’s a model that works for Alexander Figueroa, a Buffalo native who moved to Bennington in 2017 so his wife could be closer to her family. Figueroa, 28, works as a population health coordinator at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
Figueroa and his wife, who have an eight-month-old, are snowboarders; that’s a draw. Figueroa has always sought community involvement, and in Bennington, he said, he has dozens of local causes to choose from.
“I hear as a young professional that there are not a lot of events going on. I disagree,” he said. “You have to go out and seek what you are looking for. Yes, the bars close at 10 or 10:30, but I don’t find that an issue. What do you have to be out late for?” Kelly Clark, a 31-year-old architect, grew up in Connecticut and moved to Vermont for a job in Bennington in 2012.
“It’s a small firm and we do all sorts of projects and I’ve found a lot more autonomy and more exciting work to do here than I’ve heard my friends talk about who work in Boston or New York,” she said. Clark added that social life can be difficult. “It took me a while to find a group of people I had things in common with,” she said. She’s not sure how long she plans to stay in Bennington.
People who move to Vermont because they want the slower pace and small community can act as catalysts for others to make the move. Five of Figueroa’s family members moved to the southern Vermont town of Arlington from Florida last fall after attending a Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing’s Stay to Stay event for prospective newcomers. They were looking for family and community, he said. They found jobs right away; childcare took longer.
“I told them that you can instantly make an impact, instantly get involved in the community,” he said. “They don’t care if the bar’s not open until 11 o’clock at night; that’s not at the top of their priority list.” For Jonathan Cooper, a community and economic development specialist at the Bennington County Regional Commission, that community engagement is a reason for putting up with high housing costs.
“I wanted to be part of a place where I could connect, where my profession wouldn’t be some abstract thing that took place in a cubicle on the 40th floor of a building I had no relationship with,” said Cooper, who is 39. His wife works for the Community College of Vermont, and the pair have two young daughters. He said Bennington’s small size and engaged citizenry make his job more meaningful to him.
“I wanted to reach into the communities where I would be spending time, to have relevance to the families I would be getting to know, and where I would feel rooted in a way that would be polite fiction in a more urban environment,” he said of his work.
Some of those concepts are difficult to describe in Chamber marketing materials. For now, Harrington is focusing on talking to state and federal lawmakers about the more pressing economic problems in southwestern Vermont, such as the high cost of housing and childcare and the low wages that discourage many people from taking jobs in Vermont.
On Jan. 11, the Vermont Arts Exchange put on a concert in Bennington with Alex Torres and his 12-piece Latin Orchestra. Harrington is working hard to draw in more such events. And he’s committed to framing southwestern Vermont as an alternative to the competitive and often alienating culture of mainstream America. “It’s a very chaotic, unsafe world out there,” he said. “I would pitch Vermont as still having the American democratic values that I think we all grew up dreaming about.”