Census data shows outward spread in Upper Valley population


Valley News Business Writer

Published: 08-21-2021 9:47 PM

Grantham and West Windsor, towns long viewed as on the outer banks of the Upper Valley, each posted double-digit percentage increases over the past 10 years, outstripping the growth rate in larger towns at the core of the Upper Valley, according to new data from the 2020 U.S. Census.

But the new census results hardly came as a surprise to people who live there.

“We kind of figured that,” said Peter Garland, chair of the Grantham Selectboard, when informed of the big increase in the town’s population.

Grantham added 419 people, or 14%, rising to 3,404 total. That followed an even faster growth rate of 37.7% between 2000 and 2010.

Garland said Grantham, which includes the 1,400-unit Eastman planned community, has become a bedroom community for people who commute to Hanover and Lebanon to work.

“Housing costs have gone up so much in the Upper Valley that people working at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Dartmouth College are finding it an attractive and more affordable place to live. I saw this even pre-COVID.”

Although core towns like Lebanon, Hartford and Hanover also saw significant growth, the census data reveals how residential communities of the Upper Valley are shifting from the traditional axis along the Connecticut River as a housing crunch blocks people from living closer to their jobs. Towns like Plainfield, Grafton and New London in New Hampshire and Barnard, Tunbridge, Sharon, Fairlee and Weathersfield in Vermont all posted gains in population.

On a percentage basis, West Windsor was the fastest-growing town in the Upper Valley, adding 245 people, or 22.3%, for a total population of 1,344, the U.S. Census reported.

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Glenn Seward, executive director of Ascutney Outdoors, credits the mutli-year project to turn the once-bankrupt Ascutney Mountain Resort ski resort into a year-round public recreation center with helping to evolve West Windsor from vacation destination to bedroom community.

Along with a “pretty serious effort” to bring high-speed internet to the town, allowing people to work remotely, Seward said, “We’ve been seeing people who had second homes transform from part-time residents to full-time residents,” a trend he says predated the coronavirus pandemic.

A sure sign of gentrification: the Brownsville Butcher & Pantry, which converted a tired and failing general store into an upscale market and cafe that serves ricotta pancakes and kale and grain salads.

And in line with national trends, the data shows that the Upper Valley is more Black, more Hispanic and Latino, more Asian and less white than it was a decade ago.

At the same time, people of color, despite large double-digit percentage increases, continue to represent only a sliver of the Upper Valley population, reflecting a historically low presence of non-whites in northern New England, which the U.S. Census Bureau ranks at the bottom in diversity.

For example, in Sullivan County the white population declined 7.1%, or 3,001 people, while the Black or African American population grew 9.7%, or 38 people. The Asian population grew 49.4%, or 134 people, and Hispanic or Latino population grew 66.7%, or 329 people.

Significantly, the population gains do not include people who relocated to the Upper Valley during the pandemic because the census was conducted before pandemic migration was largely underway, according to Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire.

“COVID is not (reflected) in the data because the census count was completed in April 2020,” Johnson noted, largely before urban and suburban families began migrating to less populous areas of the country.

Johnson pointed out that, even though New Hampshire’s population grew by 61,000 residents, or 4.6%, to a total of 1.38 million, in-migration — people moving into the Granite State from elsewhere — accounted for 86% of the population gain. In fact, Grafton County’s population growth was due solely to migration, as more people died there than were born during the past 10 years.

That shouldn’t be surprising, Johnson noted, given how Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Dartmouth College are magnets for employees, many of them young and from elsewhere. But those institutions also have ripple effects beyond their workforce.

“How things go at Dartmouth-Hitchcock is going to have a big effect on Grafton County. A big medical facility and a college make it a pretty appealing place to live,” he said.

Economic divide

The new census data also shows a picture of stark opposing population trends in the Upper Valley, with communities in the education, technology and health care services field growing while old mill towns in the southern part of the valley shrinking.

(The “Upper Valley,” although not technically a place name on a map, is defined by the Valley News as comprising 24 towns on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River and 20 towns and two cities on the New Hampshire side, stretching from Charlestown in the south to Haverhill in the north and from New London in the east and to Bridgewater, Bethel and Randolph in the western part of the valley.)

Three of the four counties comprising the Upper Valley saw population increases — only Sullivan County lost people — although all lagged the statewide growth rates of New Hampshire and Vermont.

In Grafton County, the biggest county in the Upper Valley by number of people, the general population rose 2.4% to 91,118. Windsor County is up 1.9% to 57,753, and Orange County rose 1.2% to 29,277.

Sullivan County population loss

Sullivan County, which since 1950 has grown “well below” the statewide average rate, shrank 1.6% to 43,063, its first decennial census reversal in population since at least 1970 and one of only three counties in 10-county New Hampshire to lose population in the 2020 Census.

Claremont declined by 406 people, or 3%, to 12,949, and other Sullivan County towns such as Charlestown, Cornish, Newport, Springfield, Sunapee and Unity all recorded lower populations than they had in 2010.

The slide downward for Claremont, in particular, has been painful: Once the largest city in the Upper Valley and the center of retail shopping, Claremont’s population peaked in 1980 at 14,577.

But, like many former cities in towns that were manufacturing economies in the 20th century, Claremont has never recovered from a wave of factory closings a generation ago.

Claremont was overtaken in the 2020 Census by Lebanon, which now boasts 14,282 people after the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley’s largest 10-year percentage increase: 8.6%.

Other Granite State towns with big percentage jumps include Hanover, up 5.4% to 11,870; Croydon, up 4.8%; and Plainfield, up 4%. Sunapee, Cornish, Haverhill, Enfield and Canaan all lost people, but the steepest decline was Orange, down 16.3%, or 54 people, from 10 years ago.

In Vermont, Hartford’s population jumped 7.4%, or 734 people, to a total of 10,686, making it one of only 14 towns in Vermont where the population increased by more than 500 people

Thetford’s population rose 7.2%, Corinth was up 6.4% and Norwich increased 5.8%.

Eleven towns on the Vermont side of the river lost people, including Strafford, down 0.4%; Royalton, down 0.8%; and Woodstock, down 1.4%.

The steepest decline in Vermont was Vershire, which shrank 7.9% to 672 people.

Seward, for one, said he knew West Windsor had turned the corner when a yellow school bus appeared.

“This had always been a second-home community and we never saw a school bus. Now we have a school bus route picking up kids. That was a telling feature things had changed,” he said.

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.