The Dilemma of Life in a Small Town

Emily Martyn is an uncommon young woman facing a common problem: What do you do when you love the place where you grew up, with its clean air, clean water, beautiful hillsides and good schools, but there just aren’t many opportunities in a small town?

It’s not uncommon for a high school student to finish classes a semester early, as Emily did, or to take a year off before college, to work and see the world. But not many young women today want to major in Arabic, after spending a month in Amman, Jordan, studying the language, or are arranging a visa to work overseas, reversing the traditional direction of the hunt for employment.

Emily, 19, grew up in Guilford, pop. 2,000, in southern Vermont. “I love it, but I don’t want to live here forever,” she said, sitting at a table in the Guilford Country Store, where she’ll work until she heads to Madrid for classes in January, and a job as an au pair.

“I hope my family stays here so I have a place to come back to, but I just don’t see a way to live here and do what I want.”

It’s a problem faced by virtually everyone in Vermont, whose median age of 43 is the second-highest in the nation. Maine, 44, is the oldest, and New Hampshire comes in third. Florida, once thought of as retirement heaven, is fifth. But Florida is populated by old folks who moved there. Vermont and New England are aging because so many young people move away — they have to.

“It makes me sad,” Emily said, “but there are just so many job opportunities for young people elsewhere.”

It’s a problem for people of all ages, in cities and states everywhere. Los Angeles was an idyllic paradise a century ago, then it achieved critical mass and became what it is today. Vermont would not have its clean air, water and pristine hillsides if people flocked her by the thousands every year, to stay.

Jobs are a big problem for Vermont. Only one city in the state has a population of more than 20,000 — Burlington, with 39,000. Only eight towns have populations of more than 10,000.

Emily’s town of Guilford comes in 81st out of the state’s 255 towns. Brattleboro, next door, is the state’s seventh-largest town, with 12,000. More than half of Vermont’s towns — 159 of them — have populations under 1,000. Twelve are under 100.

Aside from small farms or home industries, such as making custom fly rods, where are the jobs going to come from? When even a small business closes in a small town, it can have big repercussions.

Marty Ramsburg, 61, opened Windham Wines with her 73-year-old husband, Frank Larkin, 11 years ago in downtown Brattleboro. Plenty of foot traffic, but not much parking. So six years ago they cast around for a better site and moved to a little strip mall on the north end of town, next to a delicatessen. It worked — for a while. Two years after the move, business had picked up by one-third, Ramsburg said, interviewed at her store.

But the deli closed in August. It couldn’t make a go of it after 8 years. Walk-in sales plummeted at the wine shop. Now Marty and Frank are wondering if they’ll have to move again, though they love the town and their house in Guilford.

“People are looking for ways to stay here,” Marty says. But they have to make a living. “We’re not a public service, we’re a business.”

Burlington already has two good wine stores. So what are they to do?

Old, young or middle-aged, it’s the same problem. To attract and keep young people, Vermont’s small towns need to achieve a critical mass, in something. But how to do that without wrecking the very thing that makes small town life so well worth living?

Most of Emily’s best friends have already left to college, and she doesn’t expect many will come back to stay. Her best friend attends McGill University in Montreal. A college education is cheaper there.

Emily will take 25 hours of Spanish classes a week in Madrid, to keep her visa. Her family wants her to speak English only to their two kids, 9 and 7. English, after all, can be a ticket to a good job and a better life.

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