MEREDITH — At the urging of Justin Van Etten of Winnipisesogee Investments, the Board of Selectmen last night agreed to convene a committee to explore what can be done to sustain the economy of the town in the teeth of challenging demographic trends.
Van Etten told the board that he has been troubled to find that year after year between five and seven young families, including some very successful families have left Meredith for "lack of economic opportunity" and for what he described as "lack of a community around economic opportunity."
Meanwhile, Van Etten explained that the median age, which rose from 31.9 to 36.2 between 1970 and 1990, an increase of 13 percent, jumped 35 percent to 48.7 by 2010, above that of the county, the state and the nation. Since 2002, he noted enrollment in the Inter-Lakes School District has fallen 20 percent while the number of students qualifying for the free and reduced lunch program has climbed from a little more than a fifth to more than a third of school population.
Van Etten claimed that while there are few obstacles to residential development and encouragement of affordable housing, "commercial development is unbelievably hard", which represents an obstacle to creating jobs that pay enough to enable people to live in Meredith. Although he expects the retiring baby boomers to sustain demand for waterfront property for another 10 or 15 years, he suggested that stalled population growth will shrink the demand for these properties and lower their value. Finally, he warned that as the numbers of older residents grows and school children dwindles, pressures on school budget will mount, adding to the disincentives of young families to settle in town.
Van Etten suggested the selectmen establish a relatively small committee to steer the process, which would then reach out to include all the diverse stakeholders and interests in the community. He said that the New England Electric Cooperative makes funds available to study economic development and sustainability and was confident of drawing funds from other sources, He anticipated the committee could engage a consultant and operate with a budget of $50,000 to $100,000. "My hope is that it wouldn't cost the town a dime," he said.
Town Manger Phil Warren endorsed the proposal, proposing that the committee become a sub-committee of the Board of Selectmen. He recommended the selectmen solicit applications for an executive committee of seven members to set the process in motion.
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