Vt. Welcomes New Residents During Pandemic, But Will They Stay?

The COVID-19 crisis has seen many people leaving big cities for smaller and more rural communities

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In the year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Vermonters have noticed the arrival of new neighbors — who chose to leave larger cities for communities they perceived as safer and healthier.

Now, a prominent university researcher is suggesting the influx presents an opportunity for economic development for the state.

"I think the potential here is enormous," said Richard Watts of UVM's Center for Research on Vermont, which conducted research with the Vermont Futures Project.

Watts told NECN and NBC10 Boston he can't yet say precisely how many people moved in — characterizing the number as certainly into the hundreds, perhaps more.

"Anything like that for Vermont is a tremendous amount of people," Watts observed, noting Vermont has struggled with a declining population over the last decade.

Prior to the pandemic, deaths had outnumbered births in recent years, Watts noted, without new arrivals replacing the losses.

NECN and NBC10 Boston spoke with three people whose moves to Vermont were sparked primarily by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"No regrets," said Matt Plouffe, who does home energy efficiency audits for the utility VGS — formerly Vermont Gas.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Plouffe was living near Boston. He said he was furloughed from a similar job, and was getting bored being cooped up so much.

"I also needed the change of pace and scenery, for sure," Plouffe said.

The hiker and skier moved to Vermont, a state whose sacrifices helped beat back the pandemic to regularly the lowest infection rates nationally.

"I definitely breathe better — that's for sure," Plouffe said.

College student Julia Shannon-Grillo told a similar story.

"I never would've considered a gap year if it weren't for the pandemic," she said.

Iffy about online learning and concerned about COVID-19 case levels in Massachusetts, Shannon-Grillo put her education at Tufts University on pause, temporarily moving into an apartment near where she grew up in Burlington, Vermont.

She recently completed a job working on the successful re-election campaign of Burlington's mayor.

"Just being in Vermont, in general, there's a lot more for people to do outside," the student said. "There are a lot safer ways to interact."

In rural Peacham, in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, elementary school principal Sam McLeod moved his family from Colorado early in the coronavirus crisis.

"We've had a lot of people move from Boston," the educator said, adding that many of them were remote workers who wanted in-person learning for their kids.

McLeod said there are 19 children newly enrolled in the pre-K-through-6th-grade school, driving a sudden 25% population surge in the tiny school.

"A lot of them probably will be returning to Boston or returning to where they moved from," McLeod said. "We're hoping a lot of them find the same thing I found here, which is that sense of community and safety, and decide to stay."

While Plouffe, Shannon-Grillo and McLeod are are just three examples of the pandemic population shift away from big cities to smaller places, Watts indicated they are reflective of the range of people who moved here. Many, he explained, had prior connections to Vermont or interest in outdoor recreation.

"This isn't the whole solution to Vermont's demographic challenges, by any means, but it's a slice of that solution," Watts said.

Surveying more than 200 people riding out the pandemic in Vermont, Watts found just over a third were "likely" or "very likely" to stay. That research took place at the end of last summer, Watts noted.

The researcher added that those people may be more able to stay because their companies seemed open to future telework.

"We need to broaden our labor pool," said Neale Lunderville, the president of VGS, who said he and other business leaders hope fresh interest in living in Vermont will help the state's economic development efforts.

"No one wanted this pandemic, and certainly we want it to end as quickly as possible," Lunderville said. "But if we can find a single bright spot — if we can employ folks here at our Vermont companies to help make the Vermont economy strong, we can do that and grow our population at the same time."

Lunderville said he was glad to hear his recent hire wants to make his pandemic home a permanent one.

"I have plans to build a house up here," Plouffe told NECN and NBC10 Boston. "I plan to stay, big-time."

Watts pledged to continue researching this topic, betting he will look deeper at property transfer records and school enrollment levels as gauges of impacts on people who moved to Vermont during the pandemic — either temporarily or permanently.

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