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Editorial: Virginia should focus on 'the exodus counties'

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The former Ervinton High School (pictured) in Dickenson County.

We’ve been rooting through Virginia’s latest population estimates, produced annually by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.

On Sunday, we looked at how the number of people moving into the Roanoke Valley has accelerated over the past four years, which suggests the quality-of-life policies pursued by local governments and economic development agencies are paying off.

On Monday, we looked at how some — but certainly not all — rural areas in Southside and Southwest Virginia also have seen an uptick in the number of people moving in. That’s not enough to offset their deficit of deaths over births but does suggest we’re seeing a helpful migration trend.

Today we’ll look at how these demographic trends ought to prompt some local governments — and in some cases, the state government — to consider the policy implications.

1. Amherst County, Craig County and Franklin County. These three localities share a common problem. Amherst is the only locality in the Lynchburg metro that’s losing population; Craig and Franklin are the only localities in the Roanoke metro that are losing population.

In each case, this represents a reversal of decades-long trends. Amherst has been gaining population in every decade since the 1930s except one. Craig has been gaining population in every decade since the 1960s. Franklin has been gaining population in every decade since the 1940s — and for a time in the 1970s was one of the fastest-growing localities in the state. So what’s changed?

In each case, the statistical answer is the same: Their populations have aged out to the point where deaths now outnumber births — and not enough new people are moving in to make up the difference.

In Craig, deaths over the past decade have outnumbered births by 122. The county saw 55 more people move in than out — so the county’s overall population decline is -67.

Franklin has seen deaths outnumber births by 715, with net in-migration of 567 for a total population loss of 148.

Amherst is in an even more unusual predicament — it has seen deaths outnumber births by 170 but, unlike the other two counties, saw more people move out than in (332). The result: A demographic double whammy and a total population decline of 502. That means that Amherst, statistically speaking, looks more like the coal counties than other localities in the region.

Unless these counties are OK with losing population, they need better policies to attract new (and ideally younger) residents.

Now for the good news: There’s some evidence that Franklin is already turning around its negative demographic trends. From July 1, 2012 to July 1, 2016, Franklin saw more people move out than in — a deficit of 171 in addition to those deaths outnumbering births. However, in the four years since, Franklin has seen a net in-migration of 245. Whatever Franklin is doing, it should keep on doing that — and more.

2. Broadband matters. The locality that’s seen the biggest increase of net in-migration, on a percentage basis, is Botetourt County. Its in-migration rate over the past four years has sextupled over the previous four years. It’s now in a position where the net of people moving in is nearly twice its deficit of deaths over births — for the decade, a net of 1,232 people moving in while deaths outnumbered births by 696.

There are lots of reasons for that, some of which are difficult for other localities to replicate. Botetourt, for instance, benefits from its proximity to Roanoke.

But one that is easy to replicate (at least in theory) is broadband access. The county has put a big emphasis on laying fiber. It’s important to note that these population estimates are mostly based on data compiled before the brunt of the pandemic — so if the pandemic has created more interest in people moving to rural areas, that’s not reflected in these numbers.

However, we all know one thing that’s increased during the pandemic: Remote working. You can’t do that without strong internet, though.

The rural broadband issue perplexes some conservatives because it requires more government intervention than they prefer. We understand their philosophical reticence. However, here’s the practicality that cares not a whit for anyone’s ideology: We’ve heard stories of people in rural areas who moved and had trouble selling their houses because the internet wasn’t considered good enough for prospective buyers.

3. The exodus counties. In many places, the main reason why a county has lost population is because deaths have outnumbered births so much that net in-migration can’t make up the difference. No government can do much about the former.

However, Virginia has 18 localities where the main driver of population decline is simply because so many people are moving out. Two of those are cities in Hampton Roads, which otherwise is gaining population — Hampton and Portsmouth. All the rest are rural counties.

With the exception of Essex County on the Middle Peninsula, all the others are either in Southside (Amherst, Brunswick, Charlotte, Cumberland, Emporia, Greensville, Lunenburg, Southampton, Surry) or Southwest (Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Tazewell, all coal counties) or close by (Alleghany County).

In Lee, 71% of the county’s population decline can be attributed to people moving out.

In Buchanan and Dickenson, 66%.

You don’t have to be a demographer to understand why: The economies in these communities are failing, some as a result of market choices (many businesses now insist on renewables rather than fossil fuels), some as a result of policy choices to accelerate that energy transition.

We’ve long made the case that Virginia needs to pay more attention to its rural areas, but these population estimates suggest the state’s most immediate focus should be on these “exodus counties” where out-migration is happening so dramatically.

The state’s tobacco commission — charged with building a new economy in former tobacco-growing counties in Southside and Southwest — has launched some programs to encourage young adults with certain skills to move to those counties by offering to repay up to $48,000 worth of student loans.

These numbers raise the question of whether the state should figure out ways to expand that program — or devise other ones.

Of course, some might argue exactly the opposite — that Virginia should avert its gaze and let nature take its course until large portions of Southside and the coal counties are simply depopulated.

Which shall it be? Every candidate for governor should have to address this.

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