Can Randolph Buck The Trend Toward Rural Decline? What I Heard In Orange County

Sep 25, 2018

On Sept. 13, VPR’s Tell Me More Tour visited Orange County, hosting a public event at the Chandler Center For The Arts in Randolph.

Chandler Center for the Arts. Vermont Tech. Gifford Medical Center. It’s amazing that Randolph — a town of fewer than 5,000 people — has an opera house, a college and a hospital.

If there’s any small town that can buck the trend of rural decline, it’s Randolph. The people I met here at Chandler Center for the Arts are proud, but worried. Will there be the jobs and population to support this community?

The history of Randolph mirrors the history of Vermont. Agriculture came first — at one point, more than 12,000 sheep grazed the hills here.

Soon after came water-powered mills, and later factories. Furniture makers like Ethan Allen once employed hundreds here, but now are mostly gone.

That leaves services — like the hospital and college — as well as tourism, which really took off with the arrival of the railroad. More than a century ago, wealthy residents and vacationers built the Chandler Music Hall, with its superb acoustics, as well as the beautiful Kimball Library and many Victorian-era homes.

Its population has been fairly stable, but is just starting to decline, according to data from the U.S. Census. The folks I spoke with knew that Randolph was a wonderful place to live — but is it the type of place young people want to make their home anymore?

One man I spoke with said he was concerned about the increasing divide between two Vermonts, both of which are part of this town. One Vermont is wealthier, better educated and well connected. The other Vermont feels more and more isolated and shut out of the American Dream.

All across the country, there's an increasing divide between rich and poor, highly educated and less educated, rural and urban. And there's concern in Randolph that these divides are making it hard to tackle to challenges we face. What can VPR do? I believe it is our role to convene the conversation about the future of Vermont -- including towns like Randolph.