In the past few weeks, a common theme of discussion seems to be emerging around Windham County, and it took a bit of reflection for me to realize the common thread involved in a great deal of it. New neighbors are moving to our often-overlooked southeast corner of Vermont.
These new neighbors, while migrating here for a myriad of personal reasons, all seem to share an enthusiasm for Southern Vermont that leaves me feeling both delight and suspicion. And based upon my reading of online commentary and speaking to constituents, I’m not alone.
Last week I participated in the Southern Vermont Economy Summit, sponsored by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation and others, in which there was great discussion about the importance of improving workforce development, housing availability, and much more in achieving the goals of a strong and diverse local economy. One of my favorite panels featured the voices of new Vermonters, and how important being welcoming to both new faces, and new ideas, is for the vibrancy of our region.
As I listened to some of the stories of these new neighbors, I felt a personal connection to some of the words they were using. Vermont, to them, was a land of health and wellness, a place where they could take a breath to appreciate life and family, and a place to connect with their fellow humans on a level that might not be as possible in an area with high population densities and long commutes. I felt that sentiment deeply, and loved hearing their words, because it connects with what I love about southern Vermont.
But then there were those darker thoughts that came up in me too: Who really are these people? What do they want to change about the Vermont I know and love? And another: We’re having trouble housing and taking care of people who are already here – will these new neighbors be more than we can embrace as we all recover our footing from the pandemic?
A fear of outsiders might only intensify if one looks at some real data coming in for real estate trends in 2020. Jennifer Stromsen, Director of Programs at BDCC, was kind enough to share some recent tax department data with me. It turns out that in 2020, the increase of statewide property sales to out-of-state buyers increased by 38 percent. Not too shocking until you dig into the town data and discover that Brattleboro alone had a more than 100 percent increase in buyers “from away.” That’s right, Brattleboro home sales to those from other states more than doubled in 2020 as compared to 2019.
There are very real concerns that this influx of home buyers from surrounding states is already making it harder for local buyers to find an affordable home, and eliminating some rental housing stock for locals as well. It seems that we are not alone in this situation in Vermont; there is a nationwide trend of moneyed and middle-class folks fleeing cities and moving to less populated regions.
But our emotional reactions can cloud our judgements and I don’t think that these are only motivated by xenophobia or racism, because we all also have a new wealthy neighbor who has been raked over the coals quite a bit from the left side of the political spectrum. Paul Belogour, affectionately (or perhaps not) known as the Baron of Brattleboro, comes to us with an accent and some odd ideas, buying multiple unused buildings and causing much suspicion by professing his love for the area and his belief that we should have more pride in Vermont. Now, I understand that it’s good to be skeptical of rich people – they don’t always have what’s best for the community at heart, but to read some of the early reactions you’d think that he’s already been caught building a secret underground lair within Wantastiquet, or seen stroking a white cat while telling Bond he expects him to die.
In both new neighbor cases, we’ll need to be open to what new ideas and skills might come with the new faces. Our family has recently met several “COVID settlers” who, as it turned out, are a delight and have enthusiasm for raising their young kids in Vermont and plugging in to our kind and thoughtful community. One of those families even features a local native who has returned to us from the big city, so the connection to New England is strong, and this move feels like a return to her home.
Fear of the unknown unites this uneasiness we have about these new neighbors of ours, but I urge us all to look at each story and motivation individually, not as some sort of collective siege of our Vermont values. A conservative should not fear a family of color moving next door any more than a liberal should fear a rich man buying a few overlooked and undervalued buildings.
I think in both cases we will be struggling with the darker side of human nature that results in a suspicion of “the others.” The antidote to this poison is both a little time, and a little effort made to meet our new neighbors. Along the way, let’s take a moment to examine our biases, and think carefully about whether our beliefs are clouding our vision as to who these new neighbors actually are. They all deserve a chance to add to the community and future of our beloved Vermont.
Tim Wessel is serving his fifth year on the Brattleboro Selectboard, after serving as both chair and vice-chair. He writes twice monthly on the convergence of politics and policy in Windham County. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.