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Looking to entice new residents
There’s a crisis facing many towns in the Northwest Corner: a rapidly aging population combined with a lack of young families moving to the area.
In 2016, Connecticut was one of only four states in the country to see a decrease in overall population. So, although the population question is not unique to the area, what is unique is the demographic the Northwest Corner is losing in droves, namely 18 to 44 year olds.
It was this quandary that the Sharon Strategic Planning Committee met to discuss Wednesday night, Jan. 25, at Sharon Center School.
The committee was originally formed to discuss how to stem the falling enrollment at Sharon Center School, which after holding steady for several years has recently fallen to 155 students. As the Board of Education looked at the numbers they realized the problem was something that couldn’t be solved simply with new computers or a new auditorium. The problem is townwide and will take everyone working together to solve.
The committee is made up of members of the Board of Education, the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Finance and other concerned citizens working together toward a common goal.
Selectman Jessica Fowler chaired the meeting, which began at 5:30 p.m. Food and drinks were served before the group dove into the numbers.
The cold, hard facts
Fowler began by presenting the most glaring facts.
First, 18 to 44 year olds currently make up less than 20 percent of Sharon’s population.
The town has about 1,000 jobs; according to the research roughly a third of the population works in the health care sector, a third are self-employed or work from home and a third work outside of Sharon.
Between Sharon Hospital and locally owned businesses there appear to be enough jobs, so Fowler put some tough questions to the group such as why are people moving to North Canaan and Amenia instead of Sharon; why do people prefer the Grove in Salisbury to Sharon’s beach; if people are working here why aren’t they living here.
These aren’t easily answered questions so the next step was to split into three sub-groups (marketing, town facilities and housing) and have each group focus on answering these questions through a SWOT method. SWOT is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
What the town offers
Fowler headed the group discussing facilities. They discussed the improvements made to Veterans’ Field recently and the attractiveness of the beach. They also admitted, when compared to the Grove, that the beach at Mudge Pond could use some upgrades, particularly to the changing rooms and bathrooms. A concession stand might also be helpful.
Other positives were the hospital and the volunteer fire department.
The state of the community center is currently in flux so that was left out of the discussion.
Getting the word out
First Selectman Brent Colley headed the marketing group. The main question for the marketing group was how to increase awareness of how great the town of Sharon is.
“There are a lot of websites that promote the area but unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of content on the sites. We have to do a better job of showing off all we have to offer here.
And, he noted, “it’s right on New York City’s doorstep.”
Some positives brought up were the Sharon Playhouse, the library, the school; and cultural opportunities, from book clubs to the many events featuring world-class musicians, writers and artists.
The negatives were the lack of high-speed internet and cell service, two things millennials feel are essential.
The group discussed possibly creating a Sharon app, or even an app farm — a building to be used as an open source work environment for the tech community. Another idea was to use the Green between May and October for Saturday morning farmers markets — and inviting craftsmen and artisans to sell their goods as well.
Houses and apartments
The housing group was headed by Selectman Dale Jones. He quickly pointed out the most glaring weakness: affordability.
One person in the group reported that the man who owns the apartments near Sharon Center School said that, “when he first bought the properties he would have a waiting list for people to move in. Now an apartment will stay on the market for three or four months before he finds a tenant.”
This comment was supported by data showing that only 30 percent of rental properties are currently occupied in Sharon.
Another factor affecting the cost of housing is that when lower-priced properties are put on the market they are typically purchased by week-enders from New York rather than full-time residents.
Jones and the group went on to discuss the strength of Sharon’s housing codes, which allow for easy conversion of houses into apartments, and also the abundance of land.
After an hour of meeting the groups reconvened to share what they had discussed.
The final discussion didn’t end until 8 p.m., and after two and a half hours it felt as if they had barely touched the tip of the iceberg.
The group’s next meeting is tentatively set for Feb. 22. The public is invited to attend.