Aging population, slow growth threaten Cape

President John F. Kennedy walks with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in Hyannis Port on July 8, 1961. The Cape's rising age can be blamed partly on the shorelines and landscapes that draw visitors. President John F. Kennedy walks with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in Hyannis Port on July 8, 1961. The Cape's rising age can be blamed partly on the shorelines and landscapes that draw visitors. (Associated Press/file)
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Associated Press / January 6, 2008

BARNSTABLE - When Leon Michelove sits back to enjoy the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra on a summer Saturday, it's obvious to him something about the audience has changed.

"All of the hair is gray," said Michelove, 75, of Barnstable. "When we started here 10 years ago, that was not the case."

Since 1990, the Cape's median age has risen about seven years, from around 39 to just under 46. Nationwide, the median age - 36.4 - rose about half as much during the same time, according to Peter Francese, director of demographic forecasts at the New England Economic Partnership.

If the trend continues, the region faces crushing health costs to care for the aging, and fewer workers for an already stretched employees pool.

Some Cape Cod residents also fear their historic, hard-working communities will transform into exclusive places only for the wealthy, similar to nearby Nantucket.

"I don't think you can call any community healthy that can't support all generations of a family," said Maggie Geist of the Association to Preserve Cape Cod. "The Cape is well past that point."

Today, about a quarter of Cape residents are over 65, compared with about 13 percent nationwide.

Another telling statistic shows the Cape had 5,000 more deaths than births between 2000 and 2006, the sixth-highest percentage loss in the nation. That puts the Cape ahead of Pinellas, Volusia, and Pasco counties in retiree-laden Florida.

The Cape's rising age can be blamed partly on the shorelines and landscapes that draw visitors from all corners and inspired famous residents such as the Kennedys. President John F. Kennedy once said, "I always go to Hyannis Port to be revived, to know again the power of the sea, and the Master who rules over it, and all of us."

The Cape capitalized on its natural beauty in the 1980s by building up tourism to replace the flagging fishing and farming industries. Some of those new tourists were smart enough to buy properties as second homes before the Cape market boomed.

Now, they're retired and moving in.

"It's kind of the unintended consequences of a robust tourism economy," said Wendy Northcross, executive director of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce.

The Cape's work to attract more visitors came as more residents were settling in. Between 1980 and today, the population boomed from 148,000 to 225,000. Many towns, concerned about preserving their character and natural resources, reacted with policies aimed at curbing development.

The same policies also pushed prices too high for younger families with children. Between 2000 and 2006, about 10,000 people ages 35 to 44 and their children left the Cape, Francese said.

To avoid density, towns required new houses be built on large lots, such as the 2-acre requirement in Barnstable. Large lots also were thought to better protect groundwater supplies from seepage from septic systems, used by the vast majority of Cape residents. Towns began preserving more open space, buying it with help from a land bank funded by a surcharge on local real estate tax bills.

While such restrictions kept areas of the Cape free from development, they limited new housing construction and meant the houses that were built were larger and more expensive. Since 1997, the Cape's median single-family house price has tripled to about $350,000.

As prices rose, local salaries did not keep pace. More than a third of Cape jobs are in the relatively low-paying retail or food service and accommodations industries that support tourism.

An effort in the late 1990s to promote the Cape as high-tech haven dubbed "the Silicon Sandbar" fizzled, and Northcross of the chamber noted the Cape has more employees working in arts and crafts than technology jobs. As higher-paying industries have struggled to gain a foothold, even middle-income workers are finding the Cape unaffordable.

In an interview at the Barnstable Senior Center, where the second major expansion in less than a decade is underway, Michelove recalls speaking to an EMT who was forced by high housing prices to move off the Cape to Plymouth.

"That's scary when the people who take care of you physically are . . . miles away and over a big bridge that sometimes closes when the weather is bad," Michelove said.

Leslie Richardson, economic development officer of the Cape Commission, said none of the Cape's problems is catching planners by surprise.

She also questioned whether the Cape was aging as rapidly as Francese warned in his recent presentations before Cape business and educational leaders. She noted demographic experts have challenged the reliability of the Census population estimates, which Francese uses. "This isn't a sudden, urgent crisis. We're still not anywhere near Nantucket."

Work is underway to diversify the local economy and make the Cape more affordable to younger workers and families, Richardson said. For instance, economic development groups are pushing the renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth as a base for expanding renewable energy businesses and research.

There's also a move to change zoning laws to allow more dense development so towns can create village centers that allow more lower-cost housing units.

Helen Perron, 73, moved from Chelmsford to her second home on the Cape in 1994 and has enjoyed an active retirement with her husband, Ed. But she said while everyone enjoys being with people their age, no one wants to see the Cape swing too far out of balance. "You don't want to be with just gray-haired people."

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