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Rip Van Winkle syndrome spreads through Rindge

Many people suffer from what I call the Rip Van Winkle syndrome. It is a form of cognitive dissonance, the anxiety that results when their beliefs clash with surrounding reality. A person’s beliefs are formed earlier in their lives, and it is only with difficulty can they be changed.

Imagine a person falling asleep in the 1990s and awakening at an economic development meeting in 2013 Rindge. This individual would possess attitudes formed in the past.

This essay is based on comments actually heard at economic development meetings in Rindge. “We need workforce housing.” This view holds that affordable housing is needed in Rindge so that workers can have a place to live. This is a fallacy because there are few employment opportunities in Rindge requiring new workers. Workforce housing is not needed when there is no work. Economic development based on manufacturing would correct that. Cute shops in West Rindge Village selling costume jewelry and scrimshaw would not.

Over the next 12 years an estimated 250 million Chinese will be moving to urban areas in their country for work caused by China’s economic growth. Chinese cities need workforce housing, not Rindge.

Discussions of economic development are marked by emotion and not statistical data. How many people currently work in Rindge, want to live in the town, but live outside of Rindge because of a lack of workforce housing? That figure is unknown and maybe unknowable.

During Russia’s economic development in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, peasants moved to the capital, St. Petersburg, to work in factories. Allowing workers to sleep in the factories by their machines provided workforce housing. Women gave birth next to their lathes. New England had a workforce housing tradition known as mill towns. A workforce-housing problem does not apply to Rindge.

“We need low cost affordable housing.” This is the best example of the Rip Van Winkle syndrome. The people who believe this appear to be unaware of what has transpired since 2008. The American economy has experienced its worst recession marked by high unemployment, declining income, only 63 percent of adults in the workforce, the lowest on record, and a massive decline in housing prices compared to 2007. Although housing markets have shown modest gains nationwide, housing costs in Rindge, for homes and rentals, are not high when you check what is available.

Homeownership is also encouraged by historically low interest rates. If a person cannot get a mortgage because of job or credit history, that is a separate issue from whether affordable housing exists. The view that everyone should own a home, encouraged by the federal government, was a major factor in the recession when loans were given out like Halloween candy.

“People who graduate Conant High School cannot afford to live in Rindge.” This position is astonishing. My response is, “So what?” What is the human tragedy if a Conant graduate cannot live immediately in Rindge? He/she can live for a few years in Winchendon, Jaffrey, Fitzwilliam, or Troy and then move to Rindge.

The moral universe would not be upset if a Conant graduate lived 10 minutes away from Rindge. Not every New York City worker lives at Central Park West or Park Avenue. They live in the outer boroughs and take a subway to work.

Why Conant graduates cannot afford to live in Rindge is as much as an educational issue as it is a job one. Besides, we lack statistics on the number of young people who would prefer to live in Rindge as compared to say Keene, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, or Paris.

We know that economic development will lead to higher housing costs anyway. Demand for housing increases when more jobs exist in an area. Taxes also go up as the need for services increases.

I heard the following at a meeting, “Without economic development, Rindge will die like the little villages I left in my native Italy.” I thought about this a lot and imagined Rindge as a post war Italian village where I could indulge my adolescent fantasy of chasing Anna Magnani through a rice paddy.

I decided to check current real estate prices in Italy. Alas, I could not afford a villa in Tuscany or even “a room of my own” in a Rindge like Italian village.

Catholic colleges and universities require engineering students to consider the moral implications of their work. Engineering projects, i.e., economic development must be based on a consideration of how such projects affect people. Do people want the proposed type of development? Will their way of life be affected positively or negatively? Will social justice be advanced? These are issues Rindge residents should consider before they approve zoning changes affecting their neighbors.

My former community, West Hartford, Conn., had hundreds of millions of dollars of economic development before I left. This development led to parking fees to use the main library, a “Wholefoods” supermarket, or what we called “whole paycheck,” the $10 baked potato in a restaurant, enormous traffic, abolishing of free parking in town center on Sundays, and increased property taxes.

However, the town manager did something right. He opposed tax breaks for developers on the grounds that it was morally wrong for taxpayers to subsidize profit-making businessmen.

His name was, oddly enough, Ron Van Winkle.

Rick Sirvint lives in Rindge.

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