In the heart of New England, lies Burlington, a gem of a city in Vermont. Its got a charming downtown, the picturesque Lake Champlain waterfront, and the renowned Church Street Marketplace create a vibrant and unique atmosphere. It’s what drew my family here.
The city is a blend of small-town charm and urban sophistication, a hub for small businesses and local artisans. Its population density, however, paints a different narrative, one that challenges the widely-held belief that Burlington, and Vermont’s small businesses by extension, can thrive in the same manner as its counterparts in more densely populated states like Massachusetts or New Jersey where many of the states new residents have moved from. Me being one of those. Seven years ago.
Burlington is a city of approximately 43,000 people, making it the largest in Vermont, but it’s a mere pebble in the ocean compared to its counterparts. Comparatively, Trenton, the capital of New Jersey, boasts a population of over 84,000, nearly double that of Burlington. Massachusetts, in particular, offers a useful comparison. Take Lowell, Massachusetts, for example. With a population of 110,000 and a population density of over 8,000 people per square mile, it stands as a vivid contrast to Burlington. Despite being located in the same geographical region, these two cities offer vastly different environments for small businesses. This discrepancy in population density creates a stark contrast in the business landscapes of these cities, impacting both the potential customer base and the level of competition among businesses.
The belief that Burlington can emulate the business success found along the coast is a fallacy, a misconception born of the romantic view of Vermont’s idyllic landscapes and quaint small towns. But why is this so? The answer lies in the numbers. More people mean more potential customers. A thriving population supports a wider variety of businesses, fostering competition and innovation, and fueling a cycle of growth and prosperity. In contrast, a lower population density, like Burlington’s, limits the customer base for local businesses, resulting in a less diverse and dynamic business environment.
However, it’s not merely about raw numbers. Population density also relates to the cultural and social fabric of a city. In denser cities, there is a richer tapestry of cultures, backgrounds, and interests, which brings about a diverse array of demands for different products and services. This diversity can lead to a more vibrant and innovative business scene, where companies continually adapt to cater to the ever-changing needs of the population. That said. Burlington does offer more culture than cities double it size. It sports a passionate film community and a denizen of creatives that’s inspiring to me.
That’s all in good but population density is not just a difference in numbers, it’s a gulf in terms of business opportunities, potential market size, and economic vibrancy.
We must look to its New England neighbors. Massachusetts, in particular, offers a useful comparison. Take Lowell, Massachusetts, for example. With a population of 110,000 and a population density of over 8,000 people per square mile, (Burlington’s density is around 4300 people per square mile) it stands as a vivid contrast to Burlington. Despite being located in the same geographical region, these two cities offer vastly different environments for small businesses. Lowell’s surrounding area is much larger than Burlington.
It’s crucial to acknowledge the unique characteristics of Burlington and Vermont at large. The state’s emphasis on sustainability, local production, and community engagement is a defining feature of its business environment. Vermont’s small businesses may not have the same opportunities for scale and growth as those in New Jersey or Massachusetts, but they do have a unique charm and a dedicated local customer base. They thrive in their way, nurturing a sense of community, promoting sustainability, and preserving the unique culture and identity of Vermont. Vermont itself is a Brand.
Burlington, like other Vermont cities, must leverage its strengths—its appeal to tourists, its commitment to sustainability, its vibrant artisanal culture—to carve out its niche in the business landscape. For instance, Burlington could further develop its tourism industry, attracting visitors with its beautiful landscapes, its vibrant arts scene, and its unique local businesses. This approach could bring in external revenue, offsetting some of the challenges posed by its smaller population. My videography business is a great example. While I shoot primarily in Vermont the majority of my clients
The fallacy of Burlington’s population density lies in the misguided belief that it can replicate the business dynamics of more densely populated areas. The reality is that Burlington’s population density, while lower than that of comparable cities in New Jersey and Massachusetts, offers its unique set of opportunities and challenges. Burlington, and Vermont’s small businesses, can indeed thrive, but not by trying to emulate other cities. Rather, they will succeed by embracing their unique characteristics, leveraging their strengths, and creating a business environment that reflects the values and needs of their community. Their success will not be measured by their similarities to other places but by their ability to create a vibrant, sustainable, and uniquely Vermont business landscape.
Next week, I’ll talk about strategy. How to overcome this weakness and use it to your advantage.