A recent survey of young professionals in the greater Burlington area found that Essex doesn’t crack their top-10 most desirable places to live in Vermont.
Published earlier this year, the Burlington Young Professionals Survey asked 500 respondents – nearly all between the ages of 22 and 40 – where they would live if they could move anywhere in Vermont. Though 60 people said they currently live in Essex, only 13 respondents chose the town or the village as the most desirable place to call home.
The data suggests a disconnect between where young professionals want to live and where they actually do, raising questions about why their view of Essex may not match that of local officials, who tout their community as one of the best places to live in the state.
Whether this is a cause for concern, however, depends on who you ask.
To selectboard chairwoman Elaine Haney, it makes sense that young professionals want to live in places with a more vibrant nightlife scene or easily accessible recreational opportunities, as she said some of Essex’s best offerings – a good school system, easy access to public transportation and a growing business community – appeal best to families.
“I see Essex as more of a family community,” she said. “A young professional whose single might think differently from a young professional who has babies.”
Plus, she said, people underestimate the town’s sizable local business community, especially some of the largest local employers out in the Saxon Hill Industrial Park. “Essex may not be the most trendy place to live,” she said. “But we have jobs.”
Paul Dame, a former Essex Jct. representative had a similar read of the survey. He guessed the desirability of Essex among the survey population will grow over the next five to 10 years, given less than 20 percent of respondents reported having children.
“I think [Essex Westford] is the best educational system in the state, and I think that appeals to a little bit different swatch than what the target for this survey was,” Dame said. “And that’s OK. Every town can kind of figure out who they want to be and what they want to be.”
Regardless of its desirability, Essex appears to be doing something right, said village president Andrew Brown, who pointed out that the overall population of 25- to 34-year-olds living here has grown over 6 percent annually since 2010, far exceeding the 1.3 percent growth for all of Chittenden County, based on data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. That same population has declined by about 1 percent annually for Burlington, while only three of the top 10 communities – Charlotte, Williston and Jericho – outpaced Essex’s growth.
All the more reason why some, including Brown, believe that how Essex fared in the survey boils down to a problem of perception. For Greg Morgan, chair of the town’s Economic Development Commission, that’s because Essex has yet to figure out its “story.”
“Colchester has the lake and the causeway. Burlington has the bike path and the downtown. They tell those stories,” Morgan said.“There’s a lot here that we never talk about, and frankly haven’t even identified. I find myself finding these hidden gems in Essex almost weekly.”
Dame echoed the sentiment, saying Essex’s problem is that it – believe it or not – has too many strengths.
“Essex’s utility in universality is sort of what’s holding it back,” he said. “It’s kind of a good marketing problem, when you do one thing and you do it really well. Essex does a lot of things really well. That’s why the marketing message could be a little confusing.”
Other local leaders, meanwhile believe there may be more practical challenges at work, such as traffic.
“It’s not good for our community if people want to avoid us,” Brown said. “It limits [us] and doesn’t allow people to really enjoy the wonderful community that Essex Jct. is.”
The survey offers some insight into how area leaders may attract and retain young professionals, with respondents identifying five broad solutions: greater job opportunities, more affordable housing, lower cost of living, public transportation and affordable childcare.
But the survey doesn’t break down why some places fared better than others, so it’s hard to extrapolate what Essex could do better – short of waiting for professionals to become parents.
Still, even this approach requires having somewhere for these people to live. And while developers continue to construct more apartment-style housing in Essex, the survey shows most young professionals prefer to own a single-family home, a type of housing that’s become scarce within local boundaries.
“The village doesn’t have any land left for developing any kind of housing other than vertical,” Haney said. “And the town, developers will build what the market will bare. That’s why we still keep seeing $350,000 houses being built.”
Dame, who rented in Essex Jct. for nearly a decade, recently moved out of Essex after he and his wife were unable to buy a home here within their price range. The few places they did find, he said, were sold so quickly that they didn’t have a chance to make an offer or priced well over market value. They now live in St. George.
And Brown, the 35-year-old village president, said his family continues to live in a condo they purchased 11 years ago despite wanting to live in a single family home.
“We can’t afford it,” he said.
Both village and town leaders said they hope to create a housing committee within the next year or so to explore some of these issues, though they noted the problem is one that’s been felt statewide.
Indeed, the survey paints a bleak picture of keeping young people in Vermont: Forty percent of respondents said they expected to move out of the greater Burlington area within the next 10 years.