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Editorial: Burton’s North Country faces significant challenges

In the days and weeks before the death of Executive Councilor Ray Burton, a series of new studies made clear just how wide a gap persists between his beloved North Country and the rest of the state. The region lags in educational achievement, economic indicators and more. As voters consider who will replace Burton, they must also be mindful that it will likely take much more than a single, high-profile cheerleader to narrow that gap and provide a brighter future for the North Country’s young people.

Consider just a handful of conclusions from recent reports:

Young adults in Coos County report more problems with depression and substance abuse than their peers in rural areas nationwide, according to new research from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. One hypothesis: Persistent economic uncertainty in the region may be to blame.

Economist Ross Gittell, chancellor of the state’s community college system, wrote recently about the divide between rural (mostly northern) and metro (mostly southern) New Hampshire and found that the rural parts of the state were strikingly older, poorer and less well-educated. In fact, he concluded, the economies were different enough that the state must consider two different approaches to economic planning. “In rural New Hampshire, for example, the data suggests that for sustaining economic vitality something has to be done very soon at the intersection of educational attainment and demographic profiles,” Gittell said. “A focus on local area youth, and setting them on pathways for educational success through college and then to placement with area industry is important, as every young person is a highly relevant labor market/economic resource in short supply in rural New Hampshire.”

An annual report from the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies that collects a broad array of statistics about the state noted a vast difference in the value of property between the sparsely populated north and the denser south. In the Great North Woods region, for instance, an acre was valued at $2,639; in Greater Nashua, it was $146,526. In a state that generates a huge percentage of tax revenue for schools and government through property taxes, that difference is profound.

That same study compared the average weekly wage in the Great North Woods ($606.38) to that in Greater Concord ($845.89), Greater Nashua ($1,089) and the rest of the state. It found that more than a third of the people in the Concord region, for instance, have a bachelor’s degree; up north that figure is not quite 15 percent. It noted that the Great North Woods region was the only part of the state to lose population in the last federal Census. And the authors reminded readers that the North Country’s aging population will put new stresses on the region’s health care, housing and transportation infrastructure.

While the specifics in these reports may be eye-opening, the trends, of course, are not new. The state’s northernmost reaches have long struggled to replace their old, mill-based economy. And while some positive strides have been made in recent years, there is clearly much room for more.

Burton was known for saying, “We cannot let anybody in Concord forget that there’s life north of Concord. We have to tell them to start looking out their north windows.” In fact, that’s not the half of it. The next executive councilor from District 1 would do well to commit him- or herself to working with the political, business and economic leaders from the region and the state to finally start turning some of these grim statistics around.

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