For all the devastation and havoc it has wrought on the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has also presented opportunities. While the world has struggled to contain the virus and limit its lethality, some organizations and localities could come out of this dark period of history in particularly good shape.
With the exception of grocery stores, for example, most brick-and-mortar stores have been hit hard, but online retailers such as Amazon have done well, for obvious reasons. Ditto companies that manufacture pandemic essentials such as masks and hand sanitizer. One might think hospitals are overperforming, tending as they are to the needs of all those sick patients. But most are struggling finanically with low patient volume because lucrative elective surgeries were put on hold and potential patients are afraid of going to the emergency room, lest they mingle with other sick people and become infected with the novel coronavirus.
With tax receipts down because of unemployment and underperforming commerce, states and municipalities are strapped for cash. As even a casual observer of Connecticut’s finances surely knows, our state has been a fiscal wreck for decades. Not only has Connecticut’s government failed us on that score, but the resulting crisis of confidence in the state has caused hundreds of businesses to flee for friendlier places. Young people and companies like General Electric have left the state for opportunities elsewhere. Both the companies and the employees they’re trying to recruit want to be near a big city like Boston or New York because, you know, those places are cool.
This gets us to where we are now. To wit, city dwellers are now fleeing for the open spaces—or at least to places where it’s not a struggle to stay six feet apart from one another. At this point, it’s been well-documented that New Yorkers are bugging out of the city to places like the Hamptons, the Hudson Valley, Vermont and Connecticut. This raises the obvious question of whether we stand to benefit, or as The Wall Street Journal conjectured recently, “Connecticut Bet Big on the Suburbs. That Might Finally Pay Off.”
As my CTNewsJunkie colleague Jonathan Wharton observed last week, this exodus will no doubt benefit Connecticut’s suburbs, though Wharton argues (correctly, I think) that the phenomenon is “likely a temporary one.”
But outside the suburbs, the effects of the migration to the boondocks could be longer-lasting. I live in Connecticut’s Northwest Corner. It not only has the distinction of being the state’s most rural enclave but also it’s only about a two-hour drive to the George Washington Bridge, or a commuter train ride of about the same length from the Metro North station at Wassaic, New York, to Grand Central Terminal.
In many of our towns, more than half the homes are owned by part-time residents, with almost all of them living full-time in the greater New York metropolitan area. As far as I can tell, since the end of March they have all been up here full-time. Some have told me they’re probably never going back to the city. Realtors also report a surge of interest in rentals and they say few homes stay on the market for very long before being snatched up—sometimes in a bidding war—by desperate but wealthy New Yorkers.
My next-door neighbors are a case in point. They live in Manhattan and have three young children, but they’re asking about schools and are considering living here permanently. Officials at the Region One School District report that inquiries are up, even as enrollments have dropped significantly over the last 15 years because of fewer full-time residents and lower birth rates among the remaining natives.
At Housatonic Valley Regional High School, enrollment has plummeted from 630 students in 2005 to 356 now, even as per pupil costs have skyrocketed from $11,000 to almost $30,000. By 2024, enrollments are projected to be slightly more than 300. Two of Region One’s elementary schools have fewer than 100 students in grades pre-K-8. One of them, Lee H. Kellogg School in Falls Village, had only 67 year last year.
For the last 10 years, everyone from Salisbury to Kent has been asking what will become of our schools. This influx of New Yorkers could provide some relief from enrollment losses and, if more New Yorkers live here full-time, they will spend more money. The downside, of course, is that if more of them move up here and pay inflated prices, even for modest properties, it will further drive up the cost of housing for everyone else.
As Wharton suggests, many of Connecticut’s small cities have devolved into faded mill towns. Our decline in the Northwest Corner, however, predates the disappearance of the mills. By the mid-18th century, our region had become a center of iron production and its necessary infrastructure: strip mines, kilns for charcoal production, blast furnaces for the manufacture of pig iron and cannon balls for the Revolutionary War. The latter distinction earned Lakeville the moniker of “Arsenal of the Revolution.” That era ended for good after World War I when the steel industry flexed its muscles.
Now all we have left are the New Yorkers, the service-related businesses that cater to them, the private schools and a couple of hospitals. I’m oversimplifying, but we don’t have many options. So I say if they’re willing to move up here full-time, bring on the New Yorkers.
They’ll be good for the schools—public and private—they’ll use the hospitals and spend money in our many fine restaurants. If Fairfield County can, in the dubious words of The Wall Street Journal, “Make the Connecticut suburbs cool again,” then Litchfield County can make the countryside chic again.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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