Aging population paints alternate portrait of Lenox economy

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LENOX — A report on the town's economy and population trends paints a different portrait of a community often viewed as an affluent, tourism-oriented haven thanks to Tanglewood, Shakespeare & Company as well as numerous other entertainment and recreational attractions.

The study was prepared by the town's consultant, Judi Barrett of RKG Associates in Quincy, as local government leaders prepare proposed zoning bylaw updates designed to make Lenox more business-friendly and to create lower-cost housing options to attract and retain young families.

Because of an aging population and work force, median household income in the town has been declining over the past 10 years, the report stated, currently at $51,089, according to the latest available U.S. census data.

That's slightly above the Berkshire County average, but well below Dalton, Lanesborough, Lee, Richmond, Sheffield, Stockbridge, Williamstown and the town of Washington.

According to the report, "the median income of its year-round households is not as high as people often imagine."

One primary reason: single, older residents, mainly women living alone in their own home or in one of the town's many retirement and nursing home facilities. The median household income for those senior citizens is only $21,954, the report pointed out. Nearly 30 percent of the town's residents are over 65.

In fact, according to federal Housing and Urban Development guidelines, 46 percent of the households are within the low or moderate income categories. Based on per-person income, Lenox ranks 152nd among the state's 351 cities and towns.

When Barrett presented her report to an informational forum last month at the Lenox Library, she cautioned that "people here are not necessarily struggling. ... You have some relatively well-off households but you have a lot that are not."

"It isn't a desperate situation," she told the gathering of about 50 residents, including Town Hall officials. "But it isn't the household wealth people might sometimes perceive Lenox to be from the outside because of all your cultural institutions. ... What you don't have here are a lot of high-wage jobs that are permanent and reliable."

She cited the seasonal nature of the tourism-driven economy which causes a robust, often crowded downtown in the summer and during fall foliage, but a much quieter scene during the winter months.

Although the town's unemployment rate was 4 percent last summer, it rises significantly in the winter, the study indicated.

The report characterizes Lenox as a magnet for retirees, "but it is losing young people faster than many parts of the state." High housing costs are among the reasons it's difficult to bring in young families, despite the strong reputation of the public school system. A shortage of well-paying jobs for young professionals is another significant factor.

On the plus side, the town's year-round population has been fairly stable in recent years, hovering just above 5,000, and nearly half of the over-25 residents are highly educated, possessing a bachelor's degree or a graduate or professional degree.

But in 20 years, according to population projections listed in the report, the population is expected to decline to about 4,700 and half of the residents will be 60 or older.

As town leaders discuss possible zoning-bylaw revisions for action by town meeting voters later this year that could encourage multifamily housing in parts of the community, Barrett's report outlined the affordability challenge in stark detail.

Although Lenox has fairly new housing stock compared to the rest of the county — more than half of the homes were built after 1967, compared to 1953 countywide — one out of four year-round homes is valued above $400,000, and monthly rent for the top 25 percent of units is around $1,000.

"The town has remarkably small households" on average, about two people, Barrett wrote.

There are many "unaffordably housed" residents, she stated, noting that over 34 percent of households pay more than 30 percent of income for costs including mortgage payments and insurance for owners, and rent plus basic utilities for renters.

About 46 percent of households have incomes "at or below 80 percent of the median for Berkshire County," the study found. Only 7.2 percent of rental units are subsidized, making them affordable for lower-income people, and there are no subsidized units for homebuyers.

After hearing Barrett's presentation, Selectman Channing Gibson said: "If we want transition of population in this town, we have to provide multifamily options, I don't see how we get away from that. Otherwise, we're just going to age in place. If we don't bring more people into town, get them to move into entry-level and other kinds of housing, we're going to see the population ebb."

"Unless people want to give up fire, police, ambulance service, roads that look the way they look, taxes are just going to continue to go up and up and up," he said. "For everybody's income, and for a population that's living on a fixed income, that's going to get very, very challenging."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.

Household income ...

U.S. Census data offers the following comparisons of median household income for some Berkshire County communities, as well as the state and county:

Massachusetts: $66,768

Berkshire County: $48,450

Adams: $43,124

Dalton: $64,408

Great Barrington: $42,723

Lanesborough: $62,532

Lee: $57,683

Lenox: $51,089

North Adams: $41,531

Pittsfield: $42,114

Richmond: $85,588

Sheffield: $66,630

Stockbridge: $58,750

Washington: $73,408

Williamstown: $72,203

Sources: U.S. Census demographic data (issued 2013)


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