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Editorial: Are we seeing the first signs of a rural renaissance?

Editorial: Are we seeing the first signs of a rural renaissance?

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ER PearisburgP 6.jpg (copy)

Kids ride in a firetruck at the Christmas parade in downtown Pearisburg in 2016.

On Sunday, we looked at Virginia’s latest population estimates, which show that the number of people moving into the Roanoke Valley has picked up over the last four years, a trend that validates the quality-of-life policies that local governments and economic development agencies have pursued now for a decade or more.

Today, we look at how some rural localities around Southwest and Southside Virginia — but certainly not all — are starting to see the same thing. Perhaps the first signs of a rural renaissance?

Some things remain true: Every locality west of the New River has still lost population from what the 2010 census showed. So has virtually every locality in Southside; the only exceptions are rural counties around Lynchburg — Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell counties.

In all those population-losing localities with the odd exceptions of Cumberland County and Norton, more people die than are being born. And let’s not overstate any rural renaissance. In most of those population-losing localities, more people also move out than move in — a demographic double whammy. There have consistently been a few exceptions but their net of more people moving in than moving out has always been pretty small.

Here’s what has changed: In some of those counties, we’re now seeing that rate of in-migration pick up. It hasn’t picked up enough to turn population-losers from the 2010 census into likely population gainers in the 2020 census but it’s still a trend that is starting to close the gap. It’s politically noteworthy, too: Deaths over births is simply a function of age cohorts but net in-migration is often a result of the local economy or local policy choices designed to attract new residents.

West of the Roanoke Valley, there are now seen localities that are in the plus column on in-migration even though six of them are population losers overall: Carroll, Giles, Floyd (the lone gainer), Grayson, Pulaski, Washington and Wythe.

In and around the Roanoke Valley, Botetourt, Craig, Roanoke, Roanoke County and Salem are all seeing more people move in than move out. In all except Roanoke (which is seeing more births than deaths), enough people are moving in to more than make up the difference of more people dying than being born.

East of the Blue Ridge, nine localities have more people moving in than out — Appomattox, Campbell and Lynchburg are population gainers anyway because births outnumber deaths. In Bedford, the in-migration is big enough to make up for the deaths over births deficit. In Buckingham, Franklin, Martinsville, Nottoway and Patrick, it’s not.

Up through the southern Shenandoah Valley, we see Augusta, Lexington Rockbridge, Staunton, Waynesboro with net in-migration — plus Highland County just over the mountains. In Augusta, Rockbridge and Staunton, that in-migration turns population losers into gainers. Waynesboro is a population gainer anyway because of births over deaths; Highland just the opposite.

The point is, we are starting to see more people moving to small towns and rural areas and this is a trend that is tentatively accelerating. Hamilton Lombard, a demographer with the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia’s Center for Public Service, says the best way to analyze these trends is by looking over several years, so, with his help, that’s what we’ve done.

Let’s look at Wythe County. Between July 1, 2012 and July 1, 2016, the county saw 695 more people move out than move in. In the four years after that, concluding July 1, 2020, the trend flipped and saw 592 more people move in than out. For the decade (which includes two prior years we’re leaving out so we can sharpen the focus on the past four years), that leaves Wythe County with a net in-migration of 250, but clearly the trend in the county is to move in rather than out.

We similar trends in other communities. Giles lost a net of 257 through moves between 2012 and 2016; since then it’s seen a net gain of 28. Washington County lost a net of 1,456 during those first four years. Over the last four years, it’s seen a net gain of 905. Buckingham lost 428 during that first four-year span; in the last four years it’s posted a net gain of 315.

We even see this trend toward more in-migration in some localities that are still posting negative numbers overall for the decade. Lunenburg County was a net minus of 472 people through out-migration in those first four years but is a plus 72 on the net in-migration side over the most recent four years.

We could go on and on but you get the idea. The biggest question is: What’s driving this? Lombard believes that high housing costs in bigger cities is the main reason. As we’ve talked about on previous days, we’re seeing more people move out of Northern Virginia than move in (although that region’s population is still rising because births outnumber deaths). Those people are going somewhere. Most appear to be going out of state, but some are staying in state, and we may be seeing some of that exodus. What’s probably not a factor — at least not yet — is the pandemic. These estimates are based on data as of July 1, 2020, so only captures the first few months of the pandemic. On the other hand, the census — when it finally comes out, whenever that is — is based on April 1, 2020 so it won’t really capture any pandemic-induced moves.

We also can’t tell from these estimates just what type of people these are moving in: Are they primarily retirees or are they primarily young adults? That makes a difference. Retirees won’t put pressure on schools but might put pressure on services for senior citizens — and, not to be too grim about it, are a lot close to adding to those locality’s deaths-outnumber-births numbers. Young adults have a way of making children, which would put pressure on schools — but also help localities keep up enrollment numbers, and those numbers trigger more state funding. Young adults also change the size and nature of the local labor pool, something local governments in rural areas often fret is too small and not skilled enough to attract new employers.

These trends aren’t long enough or strong enough to bank on yet. And not every rural locality is seeing this happen — some are seeing out-migration pick up, not reverse. Halifax, just to name one, has seen net out-migration swell from 342 over the first four years to 702 over the last four. Ditto some coal counties. Still, every trend has to start somewhere. This one — if it continues and spreads — would be a welcome one.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the policy implications.

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