Population decline has unwanted impact on region’s economy

By Daniel Tyson REGISTER-HERALD REPORTER

The startling decline in southern West Virginia’s population, where certain counties lost hundreds of people in the last half decade, is having an unwanted impact on the region’s economy as jobs continue to evaporate, leaving citizens struggling to find employment.

The U.S. Census shows that only two counties — Greenbrier and Monroe — out of 14 comprising the region saw a slight increase in population. The dozen others saw significant declines as young and skilled workers left the region searching for employment in other states.

Greenbrier saw a one-tenth of a percent increase and Monroe experienced a six-tenths of a percent jump between 2010-2015, Census data show.

Meanwhile, the other counties witnessed declines of at least 1 percent of more. McDowell County led the way with a drop of 10.3 percent, followed by Wyoming at 6.9 percent and Logan with 5.5 percent lost, according to Census data.

Raleigh County lost 1.7 percent of its population during the five years, Fayette County’s population dropped by 2.3 percent and Summers County dipped 4.9 percent, according to Census figures.

Nicholas County’s population dropped by 2.4 percent.

“Those types of numbers show people are moving away,” said Greg Chase, associate professor of Economics and Finance at West Liberty University and director of the institution’s online MBA program.

Chase said a number of factors contribute to the population decline, but its mainly the diminishing jobs in the coal industry. As demand declines for various reasons, coal isn’t being mined as it once.

“The curse of having a natural resource based-economy is that the area is subjected to the boom and bust of that industry,” said Chase.

Currently, the coal industry is in famine mode. Just last year, thousands of miners lost their jobs because of declining demand caused by environmental regulations, slumping exports, the high cost of digging Southern Appalachian coal and the switch from coal to natural gas to run electric power plants.

Those mining jobs supported multiple employers from tire companies to mom-and-pop restaurants.

And as Chase said, when there are no jobs around, people leave for areas where there are employment possibilities.

But how to reverse that trend?

Twenty years ago, the Northern Panhandle mirrored the southern West Virginia of today. The area was suffering from steel mills closing, river jobs disappearing creating record high unemployment numbers.

But a single store, Cabela’s, changed all that. When the store opened about a decade ago, there was nearly nothing around its Triadelphia location, just acres of empty land. Today, that same land is filled with chain restaurants, big box stores, such as Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and Target, a bookstore, movie theaters, Sheetz and much more.

Cabela’s eventually opened a distribution center near the site a few years ago, employing hundreds of people.

Chase pointed to Cabela’s as an example of how one business can change the economic landscape of a region. Businesses like Cabela’s, he said, keep people in the region and stop college graduates from asking the signature question of “Do you want fries with that,” as low-paying, low skilled jobs are the only ones available in some areas.

West Virginia, which has the nation’s lowest college educated population, could keep its best and brightest if more diversified jobs were in the state, he said.

For its part, the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority is working with four southern West Virginia counties to bring jobs and keep people in the region.

Lillian Graning, chief communications officer for the authority, said it makes “organic efforts” to draw businesses to Raleigh, Fayette, Nicholas and Summers counties. Meaning the business the authority seeks to bring to those counties are not limited to any certain type.

However, they are working to attract agribusiness/food systems, distribution centers, manufacturing, wood and forestry products and tourism.

Both Graning and Chase believe small businesses are the future of southern West Virginia. While attracting a company employing 1,000 people would be nice, the reality is there is little chance, said Chase.

Many economists and economic development officials have said recently that West Virginia should continue chasing the large companies, but also start focusing on small businesses and entrepreneurs.

After all, said Chase, a company with five or six employees, is better than than having those people jobless.

“I take the view its better to have some jobs, than no jobs at all,” he said.

And those jobs will keep people in southern West Virginia.

— Email: dtyson@register-herald.com