According to the latest national census data, Chester, Deep River and Essex experienced dramatic declines in the number of residents under the age of 18 living in the towns — a drop that leaves local leaders with little to offer in the way of solutions.
In Deep River, the loss of young residents since 2010 totals 25 percent — from 975 to 735. Chester experienced a drop of 29 percent. And in Essex, where there were 1,390 children living in the town in 2010, now there are just 949 — a drop of 32 percent.
Deep River First Selectman Angus McDonald, a Democrat, acknowledged it as an ongoing issue.
“We’ve been watching the enrollment in the schools drop consistently over the last 5 or 6 years,” said McDonald.
McDonald attributed some of the drop to a wider demographic trend — the millennial generation, he said, are having fewer children and the population in general is aging.
In fact, census data for Connecticut show an overall decline of 10 percent, distributed unevenly across the state. Fairfield County saw the smallest decrease in children — 6 percent — while Middlesex and Litchfield County showed the greatest decline, 19 percent, with the other counties falling somewhere in between.
Other towns along the shoreline and in the lower Connecticut river valley have also experienced significant losses. Old Saybrook saw a drop of 552 children — or 27 percent — between 2010 and 2020. Old Lyme experienced a 16 percent drop, Killingworth a 29 percent drop and Westbrook a 30 percent drop in the number of children.
Norm Needleman, the Democratic first selectman of Essex, suggested that the lack of children in the local area was also encouraged by an national economy unfavorable to young families.
“I think millennials have been late to the party to have kids, for a lot of good reasons,” said Needleman, adding that he thought student loan debt was encouraging people in their 20s and 30s to have children later in life.
Overall, there are 1.1 million fewer children in the U.S. than a decade ago, a decrease of 1.4 percent.
And while the drop in population is not a phenomenon isolated to Connecticut, the state does seem to have taken a more dramatic plunge than its neighbors. Compared to Connecticut’s loss of 10 percent of its under-18 population over the last decade, Massachusetts lost just 3.7 percent, New York 4.9 percent and Rhode Island, 6.3 percent.
Bruce Glowac, a Republican selectman in Essex, said the decrease of children in the state as a whole did not surprise him.
“It is an inevitable result of the rising cost of living in our state. Young families simply cannot afford to live here due to the Tax and spend policies of our State government,” Glowac wrote in an email.
Local leaders also described what they said were specific barriers faced by young people wanting to settle in the lower Connecticut River Valley.
Chester First Selectman Lauren Gister, a Democrat, said her town needed more affordable housing.
“It’s very hard for our youngsters to come to a town like this. There’s not a lot of apartments,” she said. Gister also pointed to a lack of developable land, given that much of Chester is state forest, and that zoning minimums of 1 and 2 acres have prevented the kind of denser development that might allow young people to settle in the town.
According to Needleman, there is almost no housing on the market now in Essex. He said that the apartments available in town, are not enough to keep teachers and young people.
McDonald said he was working with the council of governments to come up with a regional housing plan.
Jim Olson, a former Republican selectman in Deep River, said that he didn’t think Deep River had as much of a housing affordability problem as the neighboring towns, but the lack of jobs available in small towns made it less likely for people to want to settle there.
“All the stores basically except the Citizens Bank building are full now, but do people want to work for the rest of their lives in a small post office or a small pizzeria in Deep River?” said Olson.
According to Gister, there are many opportunities in Chester for work in the service industry, but the town wasn’t a manufacturing hub and didn’t have a big commercial base. McDonald added that manufacturing itself had declined in scale.
Town officials also suggested that a lack of evening entertainment could be a factor.
“I love Essex, but for young people it [isn’t] the most exciting place in the world,” said Needleman. “[It’s] not what I would call a vibrant nightlife scene here.”
“If I was 17 years old I’d probably want to move to Boston,” said McDonald. “For young people to find live music, it’s difficult. You’ve got to drive. I would love to see more nighttime life in Deep River.”
“Things ebb and they flow”
The local public schools — which the leaders of Essex, Chester and Deep River for their quality — may face the most significant challenges from the drop.
The three towns currently share the Region 4 middle school and high school, but continue to operate separate elementary schools.
“I believe that our school system is doing a tremendous job,” said McDonald. Geiser touted district offerings like AP courses, an International Baccalaureate Program and great arts and music programs.
But the drop in school-age population has already posed challenges for the districts. Needleman said the increased fixed costs, such as salaries and operation of the buildings, meant that the schools continued to cost the town just as much money even as the student population declined.
McDonald and Gister said a continuing decline in population could lead to new conversations about whether the schools should be regionalized even at the elementary level.
“It’s getting to the point where they have to start making difficult decisions as far as staffing goes,” said McDonald.
Olson said he didn’t think there was much that towns could do to address the loss of population, except continue to promote local businesses and avoid raising taxes.
“These little towns don’t have lots of area to bring more businesses in,” said Olson. “It’s a very delicate balance as to what the towns can or can’t do.”
But town leaders also suggested reasons for optimism.
According to Needleman, Geiser and McDonald, more young families with children have been moving into their towns in the last few years.
“Things ebb and they flow,” said McDonald. “We’re going through a downturn, and, if history repeats itself, then, yeah, we’ll have an uptick.”
Needleman agreed, saying he believed the population decline was beginning to reverse itself.
In the meantime, Needleman said, his focus was on maintaining the quality of the schools and having good park and rec facilities, which he said were a draw to families.
“My job is to keep the town attractive to everybody,” he said.
Geiser said that she felt Chester’s community, which she said provides “a sense of belonging from the very beginning,” would continue to draw people to the town.
“We have good schools, we have beautiful outdoor space, we have creative and vibrant downtown and even when we don’t agree with one another, we are really a community,” said Geiser.