Not long ago, a builder acquaintance of mine in Hillsboro lamented that the cost of lots for single-family homes had more than doubled since the end of the Great Recession. That timeline coincided closely with when my wife and I moved to Hillsboro and retired, to get away from the increasingly congested scene of Columbus. No harm intended for Columbus, it’s an amazing university city, cultural center, and sports town. Good to know it’s an hour and a half away.
But there’s something about country living. When we looked for property all over the state, the one thing that my wife insisted upon was not being able to hear a single sound except for the birds. We found our spot in Berrysville. Yes, we love our proximity to Kroger, Walmart, Lowe’s the Community Market, the U.S. Post Office, and the wonderful small businesses of Hillsboro, as much as we love the pace of life. But then came the pandemic.
My daughter and her family of four wanted to know if they could retreat from the serious lockdown in Boston to our small farm in Berrysville. They were self-quarantined and hadn’t been out of the house for weeks. They made the 13-hour trip in one day by car. Will they allow us into Ohio, she asked? My son in New York City had made a similar inquiry. My sister’s daughter had left Brooklyn, N.Y. at the beginning on the pandemic for a family home (circa 1799) in rural Connecticut. She’s not sure she wants to go back.
William Frey, demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, reports that “there’s a kind of softening of growth among cities all over the country.” New York, Chicago and Los Angeles have all seen population drops since the Great Recession. The pandemic has injected steroid shots into Zoom, Skype and other remote meeting devices. My daughter, incoming academic dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston, is doing her collegial administrative planning for the fall semester remotely from Hillsboro.
What does all this mean for places like Hillsboro? The answer to this question may depend on Generation Z. If we get waves of COVID-19 washing through the country before we get a vaccine and capacity to inoculate everyone, the acceleration of people looking for less dense environments like rural Ohio might be inevitable. On the other hand, Joe Cortright, president of The City Observatory in Portland, Ore., is quick to say that “Density isn’t destiny,” citing significant statistical variations in virus infections in large North American cities. But this argument is about density and infection risk, not necessarily about the need for room, the price of apartments, or the changing dynamics of business with the realities of remote working technologies.
As a consequence of the pandemic, Facebook announced that more employees will be working from home permanently. The New York Times reported: “Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, told workers during a staff meeting that was livestreamed on his Facebook page that within a decade as many as half of the company’s more than 48,000 employees would work from home.” Amazon and Google are extending their work-from-home policies.
I don’t own a crystal ball, but if I did, I think I’d see significant growth for places like Hillsboro. In my view, it’s more than just a pandemic coincidence that people have drifted away from cities. The world is changing and that means demographic changes are afoot. The underlying causes of this city-shift may have been excited by the pandemic, or maybe by evolving technologies, or maybe population shifts due to climate concerns, but my virtual crystal ball says the consequences will definitely affect Hillsboro.
All that being said, we will still be making our annual trips to New York to take in the Metropolitan Opera and a few shows on Broadway. I can hardly wait to walk into the opera… masked.
Bill Sims is a Berrysville resident, an author, and with his wife runs a small farm in Berrysville. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.