Irasburg is on the right path with its university

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Last week Irasburg launched the University of Irasburg, a month of neighbors offering free classes to neighbors. In some ways, as organizer Judith Jackson acknowledges, it’s amusing.

But it’s also serious.

Urban Vermont, urban America, are doing pretty well right now. If you’re well enough off to have investments, you might not have much to complain about in this economy.

But lots of people live paycheck to paycheck and don’t have a 401k, or any other kind of retirement account. They don’t have a stake in the stock market. They’re figuring out how to get by each month, keep the utilities on, and wondering how they will ever retire.

Rural America, in particular, is struggling. Not just Vermont, but pretty much all of rural America. Vermont won’t solve that problem until it figures out, at minimum, how to bring high speed Internet to small towns, where people might live and work if they had access to what young entrepreneurs view as an absolute necessity these days.

Of course, that’s not the only problem.

The farm economy is depleted, and with the loss of small dairy farms also went the small businesses that supported them.

Forestry isn’t as reliable as it once was, now that there’s decreasing demand for paper.

For so long, this area has leaned toward attracting tourism as its economic salvation. The downside of that is obvious: Service jobs don’t always pay a living wage. A waitress in an upscale restaurant might make a good living through tips. A waiter making sandwiches in a deli likely doesn’t.

But if the only reason to live in rural Vermont was money, Orleans County would be far less populated than it is. A lot of us would have moved out already.

Irasburg is right. The value of small towns, of rural America, one of their strengths, is in the sense of community, the neighborliness that transcends political and economic divides. We all know that most of us are not prosperous, but we have something else, which is a strong reason to live here.

We have friends and neighbors who help out in a pinch. Sometimes they know too much, and we wish they didn’t. But if you’re laid up and need a casserole, they know that.   If you need a ride to the doctor, or help getting groceries, they know that, too.

And they come through.

Immediate economic vitality won’t directly result from what Irasburg is doing, but a vibrant sense of community is a value, too.

A quick search of why people move to rural areas leads one to University of Minnesota sociologist Ben Winchester, who made a surprising discovery when working on census data.

He found that in his home state of Minnesota people between the ages of 30 and 49 were moving in, and they tended to be professionals moving to smaller towns to improve their quality of life.

Mr. Winchester eventually looked at data for the whole country and found similar trends. Given access to good broadband, professionals were happy enough to move to rural areas to enjoy a slower, more community based life.

If community and good social relationships (in addition to broadband) are what younger professionals are seeking, then Irasburg — and communities like it that innovate — are on the right path. — T.S.

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