“In academic jargon, we call these amenity destinations,” explains Peter Nelson, a professor of Geography at Middlebury College in Vermont. He’s describing rural areas with unique qualities, such as exceptional outdoor recreation or healthcare, that become hyper-attractors for new residents, particularly those pulling back from urban life.
“Our sense is that it is indeed a more affluent set of folks who are moving,” says Megan Lawson, a Montana-based researcher, statistician, and economist with Headwater Economics. The trend isn’t new and there are competing theories as to the reasons behind it.
“A big piece of it is that moving’s expensive,” Lawson says. People with greater income and wealth have more ability to change locations. “They also have greater cushioning and can handle high costs of living,” she describes.
“A big factor that’s more structural…has been the aging of the baby boomer population,” Nelson says. The same percentage of empty nesters with looser ties to the labor market may have moved to rural areas. But the impact has been more pronounced because the number of boomers.
“I think the pandemic amplified that movement for sure,” Nelson notes. Many retired early, purchased second homes or turned existing ones into full-time residences. “Places that may have been a little bit sleepier but kind of on the fringe of that phenomenon found themselves right in the middle of it,” Nelson says.
However, Cheryl Morse, an associate professor of Geography and member of the Food Systems Faculty at the University of Vermont, says, “Those people who are in corporate America are starting to get pulled back.” Many are finding out they are required to show up at the office or will be by fall.
“How long is this Covid-induced renaissance going to last?” poses Lawson. Assuming a fair number of people decide to stay, “What are the short-term and then perhaps long-term impacts on culture and community and also on landscape itself?” Morse wonders.
This summer, she will be conducting focus groups with Vermont newcomers to explore what attracted them, as well as what surprises them about life in their rural communities. She’s particularly interested in looking at the demographics. Is the Green Mountain State, one of the whitest states in the country, only receiving more white people? Or are there people of color moving to the state, as well?
Morse can’t help but reflect on the crisis many rural places have been facing for years with their largely aging populations. In tandem with the lack of refugee resettlement for the last four years, it’s somewhat of a perfect storm.
An influx of new residents could be beneficial for the widespread labor shortage. But not if the newcomers are predominantly retirees. On the other end of the spectrum, how will rural towns respond to youth members who migrated to the big city but returned when jobs disappeared as a result of the pandemic?
“I suspect there are areas where you’re seeing concentrations of people that are less well-off, and that might pose unique challenges,” Nelson says. One of the biggest is housing. At the height of the pandemic, rural homes frequently sold for cash without buyers even seeing them. Now, Realtors “have the fewest homes on the market they’ve ever had because they’ve all just gotten gobbled up,” Nelson says.
This leaves longtime residents at a loss. “The real estate market, which was already tight to begin with in parts of Vermont, is impenetrable now,” Morse describes. As part of the fallout, “it makes it exceedingly difficult for mere mortal and service-class workers to eke out a living,” Nelson says.
Housing supply is an issue communities and states need to work on urgently and creatively. But experts are concerned about development pressure with a construction boom in motion. What kind of environmental impacts will that have?
“In a lot of communities, I think the leadership and local governments are being caught flat-footed,” Lawson says. Sufficient zoning and land-use policies are not in place. “Can we anticipate clashes over the different functions that the landscape right now offers rural residents but people with urban glasses on won’t understand?” Morse asks.
Lawson notes that “people are moving to these places because of beautiful landscapes and wonderful places to live.” With that in mind, she hopes if communities become proactive now, the outcomes will be positive.
“This could be a great opportunity for those communities that have been much more purely tourism-dependent or resource-dependent,” she notes. Those towns can market themselves “because a lot of people are looking for the next great place that’s still somewhat affordable,” she says.
A wave of new residents can also filter more money through the local economy and help diversify it. “Communities that have that breadth—they tend to be a lot more resilient when the unexpected expectedly comes,” Lawson says.
“Communities that can develop strategies to plug those newcomers in and harness their energy in a productive direction will do much better than those communities that just passively receive them,” Nelson says.
He suggests townspeople sit down and ask themselves: “What are our needs? What could we be doing better?” Simultaneously, Morse offers a good caveat to consider: “Place matters. For all of us who are researching while living through this, keep in mind that every rural community has its own set of distinct cultures. We shouldn’t expect this to play out the same in every community.”
Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer and assists in the news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on key rural issues, September 22-23, in Keene, New Hampshire. www.radicallyrural.org