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Silver Linings: The North Country feels the pain of its fleeing youth

By GRETCHEN M. GROSKY
New Hampshire Union Leader

November 12. 2016 10:21PM
Colebrook youngsters Alexis Inkel, 12, Sara Fernald, 11, and Haley Rossitto, 8, enjoy a warm October afternoon. All three plan to go to college and move from Coos County when they are older. (GRETCHEN GROSKY/Union Leader)

There's a North Country saying that explains why the population of Coos County is rapidly graying.

"Our best export is our students," said Bridget Frevdenberger, 36, of Colebrook.

The people of Coos County make up the oldest population in the nation's second oldest state ­- and it's only getting older. Younger people and families are moving away to find work and living wages which, if the trend continues, will cost Coos County 28 percent of its children and youth by 2030 and increase its senior population by 69 percent, according to population experts.

"If kids get out and get an education, then they leave," said Frances Sytek of Errol.

A report issued earlier this year by a group of business people, government leaders, and policy experts points to the severity of the silver population shift across the state, and recognizes the issue is far worse in the North Country. "New Hampshire's Demographic Challenges and the Role of State Government" says the state will lose 2,500 people annually over the next 13 years, but will see its senior population grow by 12,300 as more and more baby boomers hit 65 each year.

It warns state leaders to start taking real action to retain young families across the state while finding ways to address the inevitable needs of an aging population. Do nothing it warns and New Hampshire will soon feel the true weight of a silver population.

"If this demographic trajectory proceeds unchecked, it will mean decades of constrained economic growth, significant shifts in the composition of the demand for public and private sector goods and services, and a public sector facing fiscal challenges," the report states. "Despite these demographic projections, New Hampshire's government appears to be waiting for the effects to be undeniable. It is neither taking action to effectively anticipate these demographic changes nor acting as a catalyst for a better demographic future."

And a catalyst is wanted in Coos County.

"Somebody is going to have to do something. We can't do it ourselves," said 85-year-old Ginny Lasalle, as she left the Colebrook Post Office. "We're getting too old to fix it and there's no young people left to do it for us."

Jobs and wages

Gordon Covill, 90, stood outside his Pittsburg home chopping wood on a warm October day. He spent 70 years working in the woods and remembered when there were would be several camps of 100 men working for paper companies, harvesting and hauling out timber.

"It was a bustling town until the paper companies closed," Covill said.

Pittsburg makes up the northern most tip of Coos County, wedged between Maine and Quebec, Canada. Over the next 13 years, the population of Coos County is expected to drop 7.9 percent, compared to Hillsborough County where it will increase by 7.3 percent.

Covill doesn't need to hear the numbers, he sees the younger families moving away. Four of his five children left the North Country for work elsewhere.

"No jobs. There are no jobs and not a lot of the kind that pay that kind of money," Covill said. "There's not much of a future for them here."

Statistics back up Covill's observations. The demographic challenges report says the prime working age of those between the ages of 15 and 64 in Coos County is predicted to decline by more than 26 percent by 2030 as younger people continue to move out in search of jobs. To compare, Hillsborough County in the southern part of the state is expected to lose only 5.2 percent of its prime working age population by 2030.

Over the last 15 years, paper company shutdowns and staff reductions at others have resulted in a loss of 2,280 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During those 15 years, the average weekly wage in Coos climbed $198 to $687, while in Hillsborough it jumped from $722 to $1,085. October's national average was $827 per week.

Helping Hands North of Colebrook has seen a stark increase in the numbers it serves. It's a clothing consignment store that gives out free clothing to moms going off to job interviews and gives 10 items of clothing a month to children. Proceeds raised from the sale of other clothing supplies the food pantry now serving as many as 400 families a month.

Linda Tillotson of Colebrook moved to town in 1975 after meeting her husband at The Balsams, a resort then owned by his family. It closed in 2011 and a group of investors is trying to bring it back.

"There were a lot more younger people then," she said, as she sorted through donated boots. "Now they have to move out to get jobs."

Elizabeth Luksha of Colebrook moved from Florida to Colebrook. She was a reverse snowbird who called Florida home and came up to New Hampshire for the summer. Now she calls New Hampshire her official home.

"The taxes are outrageous. Young people keep going as they keep going up," Luksha said.

The youth

When a baby is born in Pittsburg everyone knows, said Town Clerk Marise Burns. In the first 10 months of 2016, there has been only one child born in the town of 896 people.

"It's a town where younger people are moving out and older people from down below are moving in," she said. Anyone who lives south of Franconia Notch is referred to as "down below" by the locals. "There's no work and everything is so expensive. The jobs are not paying what you need to live up here. There's nothing for them here."

Burns' observations are evident by the town's school figures. In the 2015-2016 year, Pittsburg School had 92 students enrolled in grades pre-k through 12 - a 44 percent decrease in enrollment in just 10 years. Of the 92 enrolled, 38 were in high school where students who want to play soccer, basketball or baseball must play for another school in Canaan, Vt. About half of Pittsburg's students are receiving free or reduced lunch, according to state education figures.

"There's just fewer and fewer students," Burns said. "The schools are seeing it."

Sara Fernald, 11, Alexis Inkel, 12, and Haley Rossito, 8, walked along Main Street in Colebrook sipping on drinks bought at the local Dunkin' Donuts. They talked about snowmobiling in the winter, riding ATVs in the summer, and all that nature has to offer in North Country.

All three said they would be going to college one day - and each said they would probably move away after graduation. Inkel said she wants to be a banker in a "big city." Rossito isn't ready to commit to a career path yet, but said she would like to move to Manchester or Concord. Fernald said she will follow opportunities and see where they lead her.

"My parents will always live up here, so I can always visit," Fernald said.

The future and the fix

"New Hampshire's Demographic Challenges and the Role of State Government" was spurred by a 2012 report by the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy showing New Hampshire was in the throes of a "silver tsunami."

State Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, wanted answers as to whether the state was prepared for the wave of aging baby boomers. The group of leaders came together under businessman Eric Herr to answer Kurk's question and to determine whether state government could play a role in changing the "demographic trajectory to catalyze a better future for New Hampshire."

And while the report found New Hampshire woefully underprepared, it did offer suggestions to "reshape New Hampshire's demographic trajectory."

Some of the solutions it suggests are for the state to set specific, long-term goals for "net migration" - bringing younger people back to the Granite State - and to hire a state demographer to monitor demographic shifts. It also suggests lawmakers come up with 10-year service budgets that are adjusted for population shifts and developed every five years.

"For policymakers, the time to act is now," the report states.

Kurk said he will be looking at filing legislation in the near future to implement some of these suggestions. He said there is a "general recognition that the state is aging" among lawmakers, but what to do about it will be the issue.

"Whether there is a consensus that one, something can be done legislatively and B, that something should be done legislatively, is yet to be seen," Kurk said.


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