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U.S. Census Bureau statistics show: Population decline persists in coal counties

By CHARLIE BOOTHE

Bluefield Daily Telegraph

 

BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — Officials have consistently said economic development is the key to stopping the population decline in the region, which the latest statistics show is continuing.

All area counties, except Giles County in Virginia, are continuing to experience population losses.

The U.S. Census Bureau released the latest population estimates for July 1, 2016, showing losses from 2015 in Mercer, McDowell and Monroe counties in Virginia and Tazewell, Bland and Buchanan counties in Virginia.

The population in Mercer County dropped from 61,164 on July 1, 2015 to 60,468 on July 1, 2016, a 696 loss. In 2010, the population stood at 62,267.

McDowell County’s population fell from 19,835 to 19,141 during the same period and Monroe County’s fell from 13,506 to 13,500. McDowell saw 22,111 counted in the 2010 census while Monroe’s stood at 13,500 (slightly below the 2015 count).

In Virginia, Tazewell County saw a loss of 749 residents, from 42,899 in 2015 to 42,150 in 2016. The county had 45,078 in 2010.

Buchanan County fell from 22,776 to 22,178, with 24,095 in 2010. Bland County saw a small loss, 6,561 to 6,513, with 6,824 residents in 2010.

Giles County jumped a little, 16,708 to 16,857, from 2015 to 2016, with 17,286 counted in 2010.

All of those numbers together saw the total population of all of these counties fall by a combined 10,484 residents from 2010 to 1016.

McDowell County took the biggest hit, losing 2,970 during that six-year period, followed by Tazewell County, with a 2,928 population loss. Mercer county lost 1,799. Monroe County lost the fewest, 130.

As a comparison, here are the populations of these counties in 1980:

• Mercer: 73,871

• McDowell: 49,899

• Monroe: 12,873

• Tazewell: 50,511

• Buchanan: 37,989

• Bland: 6,349

• Giles: 17,810

The coal mining counties, including McDowell, Mercer, Tazewell and Buchanan, have seen a combined population loss of almost 68,000 residents since 1980.

But recovering from the loss of coal and coal-related jobs has proven to be a steep hill to climb.

For Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett, Mercer and other counties are caught up in a vicious circle of not having enough money to invest in economic development, and the creation of jobs.

“We are barely doing the status quo,” he said. “We are maintaining. We are not aggressive enough at going after it (job creation). We know the population is going down. We know we have to be aggressive, but the funding is just not there.”

Puckett said investing in economic development is crucial for growth, but the money has to come form somewhere.

“When you are in a downturn economy, growth is hard,” he said. “You have to be going after it all the time, but you have to have the resources to do so.”

Attracting businesses and the jobs that come with them is very competitive, he said, as areas sink money into offering incentives and promotions.

But another drawback in this region, he added, is the substance abuse problem.

“We have one of the unhealthiest communities in the United States,” he said. “We don’t invest in keeping people healthy and the needed programs to counter substance abuse.”

Puckett said the region needs to be able to have a healthy workforce, and one that can pass drug tests.

“The kids just see a lack of opportunity here and when they get an education they leave,” he said. “Youth are now an exported commodity.”

State Sen. Chandler Swope (R-6th District) said he has certainly seen the loss of population associated with job loss, but he is keen on legislation that will approach economic development from another angle – attracting people to move to the state.

“If people come, you will have the jobs,” he said.

Swope is part of a move to eliminate the personal income tax.

“Tax reform is the best way to do that (attract people to the state),” he said, explaining that rather than pay personal income taxes, everyone pays a consumer-based tax that is set up not to punish lower income residents.

Swope said seven states have now eliminated the personal income tax and replaced it by expanding the consumer tax, and it’s working.

That makes a state an attractive destination, he said.

A couple of bills related to the issue are working their way through the legislative process, he said.

Swope said he is optimistic and excited about the change and, if it passes, the state should be aggressive in promoting it.

— Contact Charles Boothe at [email protected]

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