SOUTH STRAFFORD, Vt. — Matt Christie knew that life had changed dramatically shortly after moving here from Malden in January. His car battery was dead, and he went to the general store across the street in search of jumper cables. The owner, a neighbor Christie had met just briefly, didn’t have any for sale, but he told Christie to go into his garage (unlocked), take his truck (keys in the ignition), and drive it home to give himself a jump (success).
Christie, 38, came to Vermont as part of a grant program meant to attract new residents who work remotely — and thus can live anywhere — as the state struggles with a stagnant population.
Those who qualify can receive up to $10,000 over a two-year period to cover their moving and home-office costs, and in return, the state gets additional taxpayers to help fund schools and roads and social services. Thirty-three workers — 87 people total including spouses and children — have moved to Vermont since the effort launched in January, most of them under the age of 40. So far, the state has shelled out $125,000 of the $500,000 the Legislature approved for the program.
Christie, an environmental consultant, and his wife, Kaitlin, 37, who stays at home with their 21-month-old son, Connor, went to high school together in Hanover, N.H., and had been thinking about moving closer to their families. The $3,400 reimbursement “helped more emotionally than actually financially,” Christie said, but the other benefits of moving to this tiny village in a town of 1,000 people are huge: the quiet, the stars, the fact that he can strap on snowshoes between calls and head up the hill behind his 19th-century house for a quick trek. Two of the couple’s high school friends live across the street.
Christie had been living in cities for the past nine years, where he found the anonymity oppressive, and he was ready to get back to what he calls “intentional community.”
“The neighbors when they walk by, they wave,” said Christie, who has already been to town and school board meetings, and has joined the local energy and climate committee. “There’s an expectation that you will get to know everyone.”
Vermont has launched several efforts to prop up its aging population, which has hovered around 625,000 for the past decade and is expected to drop. It is the country’s third-oldest state (after Maine and New Hampshire), and has the nation’s lowest fertility rate. Along with the remote worker incentive, the state last year started holding “Stay to Stay” networking weekends that have since expanded to ski resorts and mountain biking destinations to connect local employers and real estate agents with people vacationing in Vermont; so far, the program has resulted in 12 new residents. Following the closure of three colleges in Vermont this year, a pair of higher education organizations established two $5,000 scholarships that will be granted randomly this year to students who commit to Vermont schools — and who, ideally, will stick around after they graduate.
In January, the state is expanding its worker recruitment efforts to people who relocate to work for local employers, dedicating $1.2 million for the new initiative, with reimbursements up to $7,500 apiece.
“We’re basically going to try every new and every creative way to get people into the state,” said Joan Goldstein, commissioner of Vermont’s Department of Economic Development. “The population needs to grow in order for the economy to grow.”
There has been some pushback about the remote worker program from those who questioned why money was going to “outsiders” with good jobs when there were so many residents in need. Environmental activists have also questioned the need to bring in new residents, noting the ecological impact of added people and development. A 2014 report by the group now known as Better (not bigger) Vermont found that the state’s optimal population for sustainability — staying within the limits of renewable resources — is just 500,000. And the state is already attracting “climate refugees” seeking cooler temperatures and higher elevations, noted cofounder George Plumb.
Vermont is not the only state facing demographic declines. US population growth has fallen to 80-year lows, according to a recent report by the Economic Innovation Group, a Washington, D.C., public policy group. By 2037, EIG projects that two-thirds of American counties will have fewer adults of prime working age (25-54) than they did in 1997. In five Northeastern states — Vermont, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — the prime working-age population is shrinking in every county, according to the report.
This dwindling supply of workers means a smaller tax base and a less-enticing environment for employers. EIG’s potential solution: offering visas to skilled immigrants who settle in areas experiencing significant demographic declines.
In the meantime, Vermont is working on its own ways to bring in new residents. And the growing ability to work from anywhere means more people than ever could potentially make the move.
Rachel Stokes Hung and her husband, Steve, were living in St. Petersburg, Fla., when they heard about the remote worker program. Both grew up in Massachusetts and had been missing the mountains and the changing seasons — and the progressive residents.
“It kept getting hotter down there,” she said. “And when it keeps getting hotter and many people don’t believe in acting on global warming, it’s a little challenging.”
So the couple, who both work for a digital marketing firm with an all-remote workforce, found an apartment in downtown Waterbury and moved up in January, with help from a $3,600 reimbursement check from the state. Hung’s mother-in-law is moving there in June.
Hung, 30, doesn’t mind that Waterbury only has “like five restaurants,” because they’re all good, or that there’s only one Target in the entire state. “If I want something, I can shop on Amazon,” she said.
Terrence Fradet and his wife, Molly Lawrence, are avid skiers and hikers and often found themselves making the trek up to Vermont from Jamaica Plain. They were already considering moving, and the program “sealed the deal,” said Fradet, 31, a product designer who works on digital platforms that help K-12 teachers and counselors monitor students’ progress.
Fradet’s Boston-based company, Panorama Education, was fine with him becoming a full-time remote employee, and he splits his time between working at home and a co-working space. The couple originally moved to Montpelier in January and recently relocated to Burlington after Lawrence got a job at the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Fradet and Lawrence, both native New Englanders — he’s from Western Massachusetts, she’s from Maine — love their new life in Vermont, even if the snowfall totals were a bit of a shock. “Winter is like a whole other universe here vs. summer,” Fradet said.
In Strafford, where the historic churches are the biggest buildings in town and the verdant, wooded hills are filled with hiking trails, the Christies are thrilled with their new life. There may be no takeout options, and only one restaurant — open just 12 hours a week — but they can make pizza in the brick oven attached to the fireplace. Matt goes to “guys night” in an old barn turned pool hall; Kaitlin has been invited to join an early-morning women’s exercise class.
This spring, for the first time, Kaitlin noticed the birds coming back: first the robins, then the goldfinches, then the blue jays. “You’re really plugged in to the seasonality of the year going by,” she said.
Matt travels a few times a year for work, but other than that, he’s home.
“I can wake up, play with Connor, help him with his breakfast, hang out with him right until the drop of 9, hand him off to Kaitlin, jump into my office,” he said. “Then 5 o’clock, he opens the door and comes right in.”