COVID accelerated migration trends, but is it sustainable?

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Even Norman Rockwell couldn’t put a rosier cast to New Hartford, Connecticut, in mid-autumn. On the far western outskirts of the Hartford metropolitan area, the town’s converted brick mill buildings are now occupied by restaurants that sell and serve locally grown produce and locally made artisanal cheese. A river – the Farmington – really does run through the town, shallow and sparkling, punctuated by occasional fly-fisherman. Bridges arch over the river from stands of yellow-leafed birches to groves of flaming maples.

It’s exactly the kind of place that’s attracting pandemic-panicked New Yorkers who, drawing a circle of two hours’ train travel from Manhattan, figure they can set up parallel lives in the country and city. 

The COVID-19 crowds that are now seeking fresh air and socially distanced living are looking beyond what is considered more traditional second-home destinations to small towns that have struggled to catch the updraft of the broadband revolution. As city dwellers scatter, enough of them are landing in the semi-rural spots to potentially realign the very definition of economic development, land use and the consequent cascade of broad band investment, municipal services, taxation and local spending priorities. 

“The economy is moving faster than the population,” said Mark Lautman, an economic development consultant who has helped local organizations in New Mexico and elsewhere forge partnerships that serve residents and employers.

In the past, economic development was defined by incentives for buildings and infrastructure with the aim of winning and keeping employers with substantial numbers of workers. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a longer-term trend of separating talent from location. Economic development leaders are just starting to realize the profound implications of a distributed workforce on their local economies, workforce development, housing and real estate markets, he said. 

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