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Charleston population continues slow bleed, 2016 census estimates show

By ALI SCHMITZ

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Charleston’s population continues to decline.

U.S. Census estimates for 2016 released Thursday show Charleston’s population has dipped to 49,138 — down almost 600 people from 2015’s population estimate of 49,736.

Last year was the first time estimates showed that Charleston’s population had dipped below 50,000 since the 1920 census.

Charleston’s population was at its highest, with more than 85,000 people living in the city, during the 1960 census.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said he’s not too concerned by last year’s drop. He said that, after the 2010 census, he began anticipating that Charleston would drop under 50,000 by the 2020 census. But he’s not trusting the numbers yet, he said.

“It’s an estimate, not an official count,” Jones said.

Estimates do have a margin of error, sometimes as high as a few hundred people. There’s no listed margin of error for Charleston’s estimates. In 2010 Charleston’s official census count of 51,400 was almost 100 people higher than the census estimate. But 2016’s count shows that Charleston’s population is solidly under 50,000 people.

Jones said the city will continue to support initiatives to bring in young people, including supporting affordable housing opportunities near downtown. He also said capital improvements, including the Civic Center renovation project, will draw people to the city.

“I’m somewhat optimistic for the future, but it’s going to take time,” Jones said.

He said failing to “think young” will only cause Charleston’s population to drop. He called out recent opposition to a subdivision project off of Bridge Road, referring to it as one example of where people were fighting growth and change needed for the city.

County-level estimates for 2016 were released in March, showing Kanawha County lost almost 2,000 people in the past year.

The numbers, which were tabulated between July 1, 2015, and July 1, 2016, do not take into account any population loss caused by people moving after June’s floods.

Charleston’s population has decreased by about 2,260 people since the 2010 census. This year’s population estimate makes its population equivalent to Huntington’s during the 2010 census.

Huntington remains West Virginia’s second-largest city. It lost 525 people last year, bringing its population estimate down to 48,113. The city has lost 1,025 since the 2010 census.

Morgantown now is West Virginia’s third-largest city, with its population estimate rising by 147 people last year.

Students at West Virginia University and Marshall University are not counted as part of the estimates unless they choose to establish residency in Morgantown and Huntington, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Students who live in on-campus housing are considered temporary residents and are counted at their home addresses. The lines begin to blur when counting off-campus residents.

A U.S. Census Bureau spokesperson said one way they determine estimates is by looking at what address people are filing tax returns from. If a student files from an off-campus apartment or house, then they’ll be counted as a resident of their college town.

Two census bureau employees told the Gazette-Mail that, as more students choose to live year-round in off-campus apartments in the college towns, these cities have steadily risen in population.

With more students opting to not live in pricey student housing at WVU, Morgantown’s population might continue to increase.

The state’s fourth-largest city, Parkersburg, lost 390 people, bringing its estimated population down to 30,601. Wheeling lost 273 people last year — its population estimate is now 27,375.

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