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Upper Ohio Valley counties see population drop

WHEELING, W.Va. — The Upper Ohio Valley has lost more than 9,000 residents since the 2010 Census, which is roughly the equivalent of all those living in Tyler County, according to new population estimates released today by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The 10-county area including Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel and Tyler counties in West Virginia and Jefferson, Harrison, Belmont and Monroe counties in Ohio is home to an estimated 319,360 people, according to the Census Bureau’s 2015 estimate. That’s down 1,935 from 2014 estimates, and 9,341 – or almost 3 percent – from the last official census.

The figures released today are county-by-county numbers. Population estimates for individual municipalities are released each May.

Every local county saw its estimate decline, but some were more pronounced than others. Ohio and Monroe counties fared the best when compared to 2014, seeing their estimates decline about 0.3 percent each, while Marshall, Tyler and Wetzel counties – despite being at the center of local oil and gas industry activity – each lost about 1 percent of their population over the last year, the highest percentages among local counties, according to the Census Bureau.

Local leaders, by and large, said the figures don’t reflect what they’re seeing in their respective communities.

“If the Census Bureau is as well-run as the IRS, Obamacare and Social Security, I have absolutely no faith in any numbers that the Census Bureau releases,” said Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie.

Likewise, Belmont County Commissioner Mark Thomas has his doubts about the estimated population decline of about 260 residents over the past year assigned his county by the Census Bureau.

“I am always very skeptical about the U.S. Census Bureau yearly estimates because they are just that – estimates,” he said.

The Census Bureau calculates annual population estimates by taking the last official census figures, adding births, subtracting deaths and figuring in migration using tax filing data. According to the bureau, the estimates don’t miss the mark by much, as the official 2010 Census data differed from final estimates by about 3.1 percent.

Accurate or not, the annual population estimates do have real-life implications for communities. The numbers are used, among other things, to determine federal funding allocations.

Belmont and Jefferson counties continue to be the area’s most populous, with estimated head counts of 69,154 and 67,347, respectively. Jefferson County lost the most residents over the past year, 356, but due to its size came in around the middle of the pack when it came to percentage loss – about 0.5 percent.

Belmont and Jefferson are followed by Ohio County, at 43,066; Marshall, at 31,978; Hancock, at 29,815; Brooke, at 23,350; Wetzel, at 15,816; Harrison, at 15,450; Monroe, at 14,409; and Tyler, 8,975. Tyler County was the only local county to see its estimate increase last year, but lost an estimated 104 residents over the past year to put its population back below 2013 estimates.

Thomas said the planned $5.7 billion PTT Global Chemical ethane cracker plant near Dilles Bottom – a final investment decision on which is expected before the end of this year – is a sign that things are turning around for the Ohio Valley.

“It’s not the panacea, but it’s certainly going to help,” Thomas said.

He said it may be a few years before that shows up in population figures, however, and he acknowledged the area needs more jobs to keep young people in an area where the median age continues to creep upward.

“I know that the Belmont County Commission and the economic development agencies are working really hard at creating new job opportunities,” Thomas said.

McKenzie said the entire Northeast has struggled to retain population since the 1960s or 1970s, and West Virginia has been no different. However, he doesn’t believe developers would be investing millions in new housing – such as the recently opened Stone Center Lofts and the under-construction Boury Lofts in downtown Wheeling – if they saw the Ohio Valley as a dying region.

McKenzie believes the next official census, in 2020, will paint a much different picture than the annual estimates.

“I do believe we will start to see a rebound in population based on oil and gas activity and other industries that are growing,” he said.

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