How the Region has fared over the last 10 years from the economic recession was the focus at this year’s Regional Planning Day event held on June 23rd at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill. MVPC Executive Director, Dennis DiZoglio, provided an overview on the “State of the Region” for the 75 people who attended.
The morning event began with MVPC Chairman Rick Byers introducing the keynote speaker Secretary Jay Ash from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED). The Secretary commented on Governor Baker’s Municipal Modernization Legislation, which has been subsequently passed by the legislature, and the Economic Development Bill filed by the Governor, which was also approved at the end of the legislative session.
Director DiZoglio followed with a PowerPoint presentation highlighting key demographic changes in the Region through the years. He commented that “the region has been challenged for some time trying to replace the jobs that were lost when the region’s economy pulled away from traditional industries like textiles and shoes but it appears there may be progress.” In 2015 the Region saw a 5.5% increase in the number of jobs available while the State saw an increase of 4.6%. “So the good news is our economy is growing, and it appears faster than the State as a whole,” stated DiZoglio.
However, the Region’s labor force exceeds the number of jobs being created in the Region and its unemployment rate exceeds the State average. In 2015, the Region had an unemployment rate of 6.5% and during this timeframe the State unemployment rate was 5.1%.
With fewer jobs available in the Region to meet workforce demands, residents seek employment opportunities outside the region. In 1990, 61% of the residents in the region worked within the region. In 2000, that number decreased to 54.3% and in 2010 it continued to decline to 52.6%.
While the traditional manufacturing industries have left the region, the number of manufacturing jobs continues to exceed the State and the Nation. In 2010, 20% of the jobs in the Region were in manufacturing compared to 8.9% in Massachusetts and 10.8% in the United States.
Although there were fewer jobs available in the Region, the rate of population growth has been greater than the State as a whole. Our Region’s population growth was 10.5% in 1990 from the previous decade, 10% in 2000 and 4.8% in 2010. During that same time frame the State grew by only 4.9% in 1990, 5.5% in 2000 and 3.1% in 2010. “So we continue to grow faster than the State as a whole and are projected to do so through 2030,” stated DiZoglio.
“What is driving the growth in population is housing costs. While most folks would like to live near their place of employment they have found that the cost of housing is prohibiting them from doing so. Housing costs are over 10% lower in the Merrimack Valley region than Greater Boston. So we are a bigger bang for your buck so to speak and the region responded by adding almost 8% to the existing housing stock between 2000 and 2010,” according to DiZoglio.
This demand for housing has made it difficult for the residents in the Valley to find affordable housing. In 2013, 9% of the region’s housing stock met the 40B affordable housing index. This is insufficient considering over 50% of the Region’s residents are spending more than 50% of their income on housing. “The bottom line is our residents are having a hard time finding places to live in the communities where they grew up,” continued DiZoglio.
In addition, our population is getting older and projections indicate the 65+ population doubling to 80,000 people by 2035. Clearly the region will need to factor this demographic change into its housing and transportation policies.
Residents in the Region are spending more time commuting to their jobs. In 1990, the average commute was 22 minutes, in 2000, the average commute was 27 minutes, in 2010 it increased to 28 minutes.
This need for commuting is putting a strain on our existing transportation network. In response the Region is seeking more travel options to expand our transportation network. The region began to identify rail corridors, and on and off-road options that could be formed into a strategic network of trails. In 2003 there were only two rail to trail segments developed in the region. By 2016, a total of 39.5 miles of multi-use trails are proposed in the region, of which 13.7 miles are currently open to the public. In addition, ridership on the MVRTA has increased significantly. Between 2010 and 2015, ridership on the MVRTA fixed route service increased by almost 23% with over 2.1 million trips provided in 2015.
The Merrimack River, which binds the Region together, also creates infrastructure challenges as we keep pace with the need to maintain the 244 bridges in the Valley. While 64% of the Region’s bridges are adequate, 8% are structurally deficient and 28% are functionally obsolete and need attention. In 2015, 81.7% of our roadways were in either excellent or good condition. So we seem to be making progress in keeping our roadways in a “State of Good Repair”.
Following DiZoglio’s comments the MVPC Program Managers discussed how the programs they manage can help the Valley address the many issues it faces. Complete presentations can be found on the MVPC website at www.mvpc.org.
Written by Dennis DiZoglio