Presidents Message

This month, we released a new report, A Closer Look, which synthesizes findings from our recent community assessment process. At a time when so much focus is on the national level, this report provides a chance to understand the trends and factors affecting our lives locally—in this four-county region. 

The report presents a combination of key facts and resident perspectives across five themes that jumped out in our analysis. Through focus groups and surveys, we were able to hear viewpoints from over 2,300 residents. 

Over the course of the next few updates, I am going to describe more in depth what we have learned and how we are using the findings to sharpen our strategic focus as a community foundation and as a leadership organization that wants to work with partners to address the pressing issues surfacing in this report. 

The predominant issue on people’s minds is jobs and economic development. The region’s overall slow job growth since the recession and shifting economic base are the primary concern for people across all age, income and education levels.

For example, in a focus group we heard from an adult who observed that jobs he and his peers held as teenagers growing up—such as washing dishes or retail—today are filled by adults trying to raise families. We also heard from employers who have job openings they cannot fill—that the skills of residents applying and the skills needed for open positions do not line up. This mismatch prevents residents from getting good jobs and businesses from accessing the horsepower they need to be successful. 

Overall, we need to be investing in developing industries that create jobs offering a livable wage and career prospects. A sobering finding is that 44% of residents 46 years of age and younger are considering moving -- and a lack of jobs and career advancement are the top two reasons. 

The economic challenges facing this region, however, are common to many other rural regions in the country. In the face of this challenge, we also need to recognize that our region has many assets and strengths that other regions do not have to the same degree. 

The report highlights industry sectors that hold promise for growth -- sectors such as the creative economy and agriculture and food-related enterprises that build off our comparative advantages given our natural, cultural and community resources. We are also 2.5 hours away from two of the largest markets in the U.S., within striking distance for goods and services to get there and for people to live and work here due to the quality of life when their business activities can be elsewhere. This does not even account for how the internet bridges distances even further way, providing an opportunity for commerce and sharing of ideas -- but we also know this region still lacks consistent, reliable broadband coverage.

The report also shows that we need to pay attention to deepening inequality in the region. The poverty rate is rising in three quarters of the region’s towns and cities -- and incomes have not kept pace with inflation in over half of the region. At the same time, the number of housing units used for part-time residences has grown by 28%. In a focus group, we heard from a single mom with three kids who is putting herself through community college. She works six days a week to make her $900 rent.

To underscore the point of this single mom, our research showed that 45% of renters across the region are cost-burdened, meaning they pay more than 30% of their incomes on housing, and about one in five are severely cost-burned and pay up to 50% on rent. 

In a focus group, we also heard from another community college student who has never been to Tanglewood except to participate in her high school graduation. How can we ensure all residents have the opportunity for economic mobility and a high quality of life, which includes accessing the amenities that make this place special?

An important purpose of this process and report is to animate and inform community conversations around the region to begin to answer that and other questions. The report and the conversations it prompts can help us understand issues in the context of our philanthropy and involvement in community groups, local government, organizations and businesses, and as citizens and voters. 

This fall, we are going to continue engaging in community conversation about what we have learned by hosting regional forums. With a greater shared understanding, we will be better equipped to act, individually and collectively, to effect change on these issues and trends. 

Peter Taylor
July 2017