For many who grew up on Cape Cod, the grass often appears greener on the other side of the bridges. Or maybe it’s the money that looks that way.
Perhaps they just haven’t looked close enough at where they live.
“My dad gave me some great advice when I was thinking of leaving the Cape,” said Scott Swaylik, 39, a financial advisor in Barnstable. “He said everybody works their whole life to be able to move to the Cape. Why would you want to leave?”
“Growing up here, I couldn’t wait to get off Cape,” said Chris O’Brien, 31, who recently started a website design firm, Dative, based in Bourne. “I was going to hit the bridge with a one-way ticket and leave.”
Bob Maffei, 39, owner of Maffei Landscape Contractors of Mashpee, said, “If you had a chance to grow up here, everybody says the same thing. ‘I plan to get off of Cape Cod.’ ”
In fact, US Census numbers showed that between 2000 and 2010, the population of those ages 25 to 44 dropped by 26 percent in Barnstable County, said Anne Van Vleck, 43, Executive Director of the CCYP, the re-branded Cape Cod Young Professionals.
These census numbers prompted CCYP into action, said Van Vleck. Working with the the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, CCYP developed a survey that 3,817 have taken since November 1. The goal is to get 4,000 to take the survey by the end of November. It is part of an initiative that CCYP is calling “Shape The Cape.”
“This is one of the cross-cutting community issues affecting everyone in a lot of ways,” said Wendy Northcross, 57, CEO of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. “This is the age group that is having babies, buying houses, and consuming goods and services.”
Barry Bluestone, 68, the founder of the Dukakis Center and a summer resident of Truro, put it this way: “Younger people A, do the work and B, pay the taxes.”
Demographics tell stories, sometimes the same stories that people tell.
“We have a sense of what we know,” said Sara Cushing, 34, a member of CCYP who works for Cape Cod Healthcare. “We all know people who have left, or who have stayed.”
“Many of the hypotheses you would have or I would have have been confirmed by overwhelming numbers,” said Bluestone, who has seen preliminary results from the 99-question survey, which was developed along with the CCYP byNancy Lee, a senior research associate at the Dukakis Center.
The survey shows that the two top reasons people leave the Cape are lack of jobs, and family commitments off Cape, said Bluestone.
Citing the thoroughness of the survey, Bluestone said, “I have incredibly high confidence in the results. This is exceptional data.”
Going in, the anecdotal evidence was already strong.
“I think the hypothesis going in is that people want to come here and make it their home or they want to stay here and make it their home, but there aren’t a lot of available jobs that would pay what I consider a living wage,” said Cushing, who is on the steering committee of Shape the Cape, and was recently elected to Barnstable Town Council.
“We’ve been hearing about the out-migration, people leaving,” said Van Vleck. “We want to get the facts and data and then come up with an action plan.”
The survey was prompted by the census revealing the big loss in population of those 25 to 44. “It was a little bit shocking,” said Matthew Cole, board president of CCYP. Cole, president and CEO of Cape Associates, a building company in Eastham, said, “Two fundamental issues are more affordable housing, and better, higher-paying jobs.”
Those two issues – housing and jobs – are the hypothesis issues. The tangents around them have more arms than an octopus. There is not one reason young people leave the Cape.
Young people have left home, no matter where home was, forever.
This is somehow different. There is more happening than just people growing up and leaving home. It’s about who is, and isn’t, moving to Cape Cod.
The Cape Cod Chamber of Comerce wants a role in that equation. “We have robust marketing,” said Northcross. “We want you to move to Cape Cod. We would have never had that before.”
It’s perplexing to be such a popular destination, and yet lose population.
“In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was a tremendous amount of open space on the Cape,” said Joel Crowell, president and CEO of the Cooperative Bank of Cape Cod.
Crowell, 63, is an 11th generation Cape Codder. He remembers when “you could build a house and start a life. As that amount of open space ended, then the prices started to go up.”
And Maffei said he knows people who still talk about how they could have and should have bought land when it was selling for $10,000 for a buildable lot.
With affordable, buildable land disappearing as an option, there is yet another major obstacle for young people who want to live on Cape Cod: competition from baby boomers.
“What’s happened is we have this population of baby boomers who have worked hard all their lives to own a piece of Cape Cod,” said Swaylik. “And they’ve done a great job. But you can’t compete with the person who has been saving their whole life to buy a piece of Cape Cod.”
The demographics of Cape Cod are the demographics of New England, which are the demographics of America, just more pronounced.
“There are 78 million baby boomers reaching 65 at the rate of 10,000 a day,” said Bluestone. “The Cape is growing older,” he said. “It’s harder for young people and it’s the perfect place for people my age to get a second home,” said Bluestone.
“New England is growing slowly, but aging rapidly, “said Bluestone. “Growing slowly is not a problem, but growing slowly and aging rapidly is a very big problem.”
Northcross said, “It’s the same condition that all of New England has.” But the change has been more dramatic on the Cape. “When the 2010 census came out, there was lost population on the Cape for the first time since 1950,” she said.
While the census numbers are undeniable and the anecdotal evidence points to good jobs and affordable housing as obstacles, the baby boomer demographic shift is, according to some interviewed for this story, affecting the Cape in profound ways.
Fifteen years ago, Swaylik said, the majority of the clients for his financial planning services were local Cape business owners. “Now the majority of my clients are retirees,” he said.
Swaylik said that if a retired baby boomer and a young family want the same house, the bidding could rise fast from, say, $250,000 to $300,000 to $350,000. “Are you going to be able to keep climbing the ladder?” he asked.
Many of the same things about Cape Cod that appeal to young people also appeal to the stream of retirees showing up here.
“As the population grows older, a lot of resources are going to that older population, and rightfully so,” said Swaylik. “But it is being pulled away from a local investment in technology, in the community college, and in the school systems. Usually the squeakiest wheel gets the grease.”
But this trend has many on Cape worried. “Do we want the Cape to become 70-year-olds taking care of 90-year-olds?” asked Van Vleck.
John Cox, 51, president of Cape Cod Community College, said people must ask themselves, “Do I want to stay on the Cape so bad that I will work within the existing business situation? Or are the circumstances such that don’t allow me to live and work on the Cape?”
The circumstances on Cape Cod, like in America, are evolving into a story of the haves and have-nots. But the demographics and geographics make some of it more pronounced.
“It’s a seasonal economy with a lot of part-time jobs, seasonal workers, and high unemployment in the winter,” said Paul Niedzwieki, 49, Executive Director of the Cape Cod Commission and a board member of CCYP.
“Looking at the Cape’s economy, there is definitely a challenge,” said Northcross. “We still have a resort-based economy, and a retirement-based economy.”
What jobs there are, and what jobs there should be is a major focus of those involved with the issue.
“There’s a lack of opportunities for jobs of a certain type,” said Crowell. “The majority of jobs on the Cape are construction related. There are not jobs in corporate America, or in manufacturing.”
While land disappears for those construction-related jobs, there have been attempts to bring national chains stores to the Cape to provide jobs. “We have plenty of nine-dollar-an-hour jobs on the Cape,” said Cushing. “Nine dollars an hour doesn’t buy a home.”
As Cushing said, “It’s a great place to raise a family. But it’s hard to do on nine dollars an hour.”
The survey results that Bluestone has seen, and the anecdotes all say the same thing: there are not enough opportunities on Cape Cod.
“I was the only one of my core group of friends that stayed,” said O’Brien, who moved away for one year and then came back. “They all moved to Boston or New York. What they do, they wouldn’t be able to find work down here. I have one friend that works for Adidas. There are not the jobs down here to do what they need to do.”
So what do people do?
“Back in ’08, when things had crashed, we had financed a number of people who relied on three or four jobs,” said Crowell, the bank president. “When the crash came, if one of those jobs disappeared, they were in trouble.”
Some leave. “There’s limited opportunities here and that’s why we’re losing a lot of people,” said Cushing.
“We’re trying to make it so you can work and live here without working three jobs,” said O’Brien.
Every morning between 6 AM and 8 AM, O’Brien, who lives near the Bourne Bridge, sees “a steady stream of contractors coming onto the Cape to work because they can’t afford to live on the Cape.”
For many who do live here, there are tradeoffs.
“I hear people say, ‘I’ve got two jobs. I’m trying to make it work. I am living in my parents basement but I’m not giving up,’ ” said Van Vleck.
The limited job opportunities in a seasonal housing market increasingly dominated by retiring baby boomers means “a lot of people jump from place to place,” said Cushing.
The winter rental/make-do-in-the-summer dance is common for many. Some move in with family in the summer. O’Brien lived in his car one summer, camping by Coonamesset Pond in Falmouth, and then taking his tent down every morning so he wouldn’t get caught.
“The problem we have all throughout New England is that we can build two kinds of housing,” said Bluestone. “Housing for millionaires, and housing for very poor people. We don’t have a lot of housing for everyone else, which is most of us.”
Niedzwieki said, “We need housing that enters into the market in a different place. We need smaller units and we need to stop building houses for baby boomers.”
Swaylik said that affordable housing should be “used for productive families,” and he cited firefighter, teachers, and police officers as the types of families that should qualify.
Bluestone agreed and said there are creative affordable housing and creative zoning solutions. “The future of the Cape is going to need some significant changes in zoning.”
O’Brien considered leaving. But, he said, “I used to visit my friends in the city and every time I did, I wanted to live there less and less.”
Survey results show, “People love the beauty and the culture,” said Bluestone. “It’s a wonderful place to raise a family..”
That is no small thing.
“A lot of guys I grew up with moved off of Cape Cod ultimately to come back so their kids can play in the same rec-ball leagues that they did,” said Maffei. “There were always after school activities. The experience of growing up here is good. I was sheltered in some ways and in some ways I was more advanced.”
The stories of people coming back are plentiful. Bluestone said the survey included many people who used to live on Cape, and showed that people want to come back but feel hindered by the lack of opportunities.
But Cole said, “There are more good jobs on the Cape than there are perceived to be. “A perceived lack of opportunities is the biggest problem. There are a number of high-performing businesses that are growing and hiring.”
There are pockets of growth and “there is some evidence that (out-migration) has slowed, stopped and started to reverse,” said Cole.
The CCYP website currently lists 29 available jobs.
Maffei said he is hiring, and there is room for advancement. For some of his higher-end jobs, such as landscape architect, he has had to recruit off Cape. But he also cited an employee who started as a $12 an hour landscaper and is now managing accounts worth millions of dollars.
Maffei said that while affordable housing can be appear problematic, it is also available. “The fact of the matter is you can find real estate on Cape Cod,” he said.
But he added, “We need to make the business environment better for everyone.”
“You need to be able to grow your company without getting massacred by regulations,” said Maffei.
Bluestone said, “There’s a reason why zoning is the toughest issue in Massachusetts. Local communities have very little control over most things. Zoning is one of the few things they have control over. If you have control over very few things, you zealously protect what you can control.”
But Bluestone said towns shouldn’t be ruled by “small cliques of people with too much time on their hands, and a chip on their shoulder.” Development should not “be an argument between 23 soccer moms and four billionaires, while 80,000 people haven’t weighed in at all,” he said.
The concern over government regulations and the damper they put on business was raised by many, including Niedzwieki of the Cape Cod Commission, the group tasked with regulating growth on Cape Cod.
Niedzwieki said density in certain areas is a good thing and the commission is looking for ways to allow growth in certain districts with “adequate infrastructure,”, such as downtown Hyannis, and the South Sandwich Village Business District. “We would get out of the way,” he said.
Growth in these higher-density districts would lead to more growth, said Niedzwieki. “It’s easier to stoke a fire than to start a fire,” he said.
But on Cape Cod, Niedzwieki pointed out, “Wastewater is the 800-pound gorilla.”
That’s why density with a sewer plan makes sense for growth because “more users on the shortest length of pipe” makes it less expensive, said Niedzwieki.
While big discussions around wastewater planning continue, Cushing said that even simple things like trying to change the color of a sign can be difficult.
Getting business leaders and municipal leaders talking about these issues, said Cushing, is the first stop to solving them.
“No action isn’t a possibility or we’ll just stand by and say, ‘Look, there goes another family,’ “ said Van Vleck.
“This isn’t a new problem but I think we’re on the verge of some new solutions,” said Niedzwieki.
The survey was merely the first step.
“The data gives us a starting point for the conversation,” said Cushing.
While preliminary survey results appear to match the anecdotal evidence, there is genuine interest in many camps in a conversation that actually could change the shape of Cape Cod’s future.
“Things happen when momentum builds,” said Crowell. “But it has to be fact-based.”
When the survey closes, at the beginning of December, the data will be analyzed in conjunction with the Dukakis Center, and a report and action plan is expect to be released next June. “This isn’t going to be a study that just sits on a shelf,” said Van Vleck.
In fact, Crowell said, “If they (CCYP) are one year and done, they will have wasted their time. But I’m convinced they have the staying power.”
Van Vleck said that CCYP cannot make changes happen on its own. “We want to lead the charge but we want the entire Cape community behind us pushing,” she said.
There are many interested parties.
“We’re absolutely at the receiving end of the demographic shift,” said Cox, of Cape Cod Community College.
The entire Cape is on the receiving end of the shift.
Yet Bluestone and others see opportunity in the numbers. “As the Cape becomes more exciting to retirees, there will be well-paying jobs for professional services like medical care, dentists, physical therapy.”
In fact, Cape Cod Healthcare is the largest employer on the Cape with 4,000 employees. But Bluestone sees many opportunities revolving around retirees. “When I’m 90, I’m not going to want to drive. So I’ll need transportation services, like a van at a reasonable cost.”
But Bluestone said the real opportunity is to “make it easier for businesses to locate here. This adds to the local tax base. The only alternative over the long run is to cut public services or raise taxes on those already here.”
So while the data gives heft to the anecdotal evidence that everybody already knew, the solutions require new thinking, while working within the existing environment.
“The biggest impediment is the Cape Cod Canal, “ said Niedzwieki. “The seasonal economy and the year-round economy collide at the Cape Cod Canal.”
Crowell said there is room for growth, but “It’s not manufacturing. A product that has to be shipped has transportation problems.” However, in the modern world, many products can ship electronically, he said.
“People who can electronically commute can live here,” said Bluestone. “Someone like a graphic artist,” he said.
Northcross and others suggested the marine sciences area is one of growth for the Cape. High tech, in fact, is something helped in large part by the new high-speed Internet service called Smarter Cape, connecting into bigger institutions such as the college and the hospital. “We built the backbone that nobody else would,” she said.
Cox said the college has programs supporting the hospitality industry but. “We need to be more than a hospitality and retirement community.”
Thus, the college is expanding its offerings, said Cox. “For instance, we are scheduled to roll out in 2015 an air frame and power plant program supporting airplane mechanics. We’re going after a different area we haven’t gone after before, and possibly make it a destination program.”
College officials are thinking, “How do we position the college as a driver and encourager of economic growth?” said Cox.
As Niedzwieki put it, “We’re trying to get companies to bring work to where the people are.”
Some of those people have left. While the young professionals work to change the environment on the Cape, Maffei had these words of advice, “Before you go out and get stuck in a new career somewhere else, take a look at where you live.”
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— Brian Tarcy