The latest population estimates recently released for every Virginia city and county contain a small bombshell: Franklin County is now losing population. This is a reversal of historic trends that is so dramatic it’s hard to overstate.
From the 1970s onward, Franklin County was one of the fastest-growing localities in the state. Its population expanded 33 percent during the ’70s. The census counts in 2000 and 2010 still pegged the county’s growth at just under 20 percent — at a time when many rural localities in Virginia were losing population. By contrast, from 1970 to 2010, Franklin County’s population more than doubled — from 26,858 to 56,159.
Much of that was due to Smith Mountain Lake; some of that was due to Franklin County’s proximity to Roanoke. Since 2010, growth has been slowing, but the 2017 population estimates still showed Franklin County’s population expanding, albeit at a much slower rate. Now Weldon Cooper says Franklin County’s population is shrinking. It’s down just 32 people, to 56,127, so statistically speaking, it’s basically flat. Still, this is a turnaround of historic proportions. Franklin County hasn’t lost population since the 1940s, when World War II and the economic changes it set in motion shrank the county’s population by 5 percent.
Why is Franklin now losing population? First, the county’s in-migration has slowed — to a net of just 430 this decade. Second, deaths outnumber births by 462. Hence the net result of 32 fewer people. Both of these trends are recent phenomena, and bear further examination. The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University Virginia — which is responsible for producing population estimates — has supplied us with historical data that allow us to dig deeper. The center also says the new trends will cause it to revisit previous projections that Franklin would continue to gain population.
Franklin’s “death boom” is relatively new but accelerating. From 1919 (which is as far back as records go) through 2009, births outnumbered deaths in Franklin County. It was not until 2010 that deaths began to outnumber births. That trend has now continued for every year since — and has picked up speed. In 2010, deaths outnumbered births by 14. By 2017, there were 123 more deaths than births. There’s a logical explanation for this: Franklin County’s population is growing older. That shouldn’t surprise anyone since the county has become a magnet for retirees, especially around the lake. However, the county has been attracting retirees for a long time; why did births still outnumber deaths up until 2010?
Here’s where some context is useful: Most rural localities in Virginia now see deaths outnumber births, so Franklin County is hardly alone. Virtually all rural localities in the state are aging. Notice that the births-over-deaths flipped to deaths-over-births shortly after the last recession hit. Since then, births statewide are down 7 percent. It’s likely that the recession discouraged young adults from starting or expanding families, because children are expensive. Feel free to toss in other social trends, if you wish. American birth rates have been declining for decades now. Whatever the causes, the numbers remain the same: A lot of people in Franklin County are dying and not as many are being born.
Franklin County’s deaths-vs.-births figures aren’t as bad as they are in some other localities in the region. Botetourt County, which is not quite half the size, saw 542 more deaths than births — so it’s dying at a faster rate. Pulaski County, which is about the same size as Botetourt, is dying even faster — it saw 906 more deaths than births. Henry County, about the same size as Franklin County, has the biggest imbalance in the state —it’s had 1,524 more people die than born. All these localities face a demographic challenge — how to attract and retain younger adults.
Franklin County now has more people moving out than moving in. This is an even bigger change than the “baby boom” turning into a “death boom.” From 1953 to 1970, Franklin County generally saw more people moving out than moving in — 16 of those 18 years saw a net exodus. Then came the growth around Smith Mountain Lake and exurban growth from the Roanoke Valley. From 1971 to 2012, Franklin County almost always saw more people moving in than out — 39 of those 42 years saw a net plus for in-migration. Those trends changed again in 2013, when the county suddenly saw more people moving out than in. Now, four of the past six years have been marked by net out-migration. This is a stunning reversal. In 2006, the county saw 1,793 more people move in than move out — that was the peak year of in-migration. Last year, that figure was -177. That many more people moved out than moved in. The county’s net-migration since the last census remains in the positive range (462), but that’s only because of numbers from the early part of the decade. If you look only at the past six years, Franklin has experienced net migration of -114.
It’s easy to explain why this has happened. First, a lot fewer people are moving into the county. Building permits spiked just before the last recession and have plummeted since. In 2005, there were 628 issued. By 2013, those fell to 111. In 2017, there were 119. In any locality, there are always people coming and going. Franklin now has a lot fewer people coming. Has the number of people going increased? That’s harder to say. All we know for sure is that Franklin County is now losing population two ways — by more people moving out than in, and by more people dying than being born. In that respect, Franklin County now resembles other localities in Southside and Southwest Virginia that have been experiencing the same thing for many years.
None of this comes as a surprise to county officials, who have been watching these trends for several years and have tried to formulate a response. One of those responses is the Summit View business park, which is intended to attract a bigger employment base. In theory, that would help retain young adults who are leaving for jobs elsewhere, and perhaps attract others. The plans for the park also include amenities intended to improve the county’s quality of life — a space for concerts, fields for youth and adult sports, and multi-use greenways. That’s in line with how Roanoke Valley communities have used “quality of life” as a selling point. Upgrading the county’s career and technical center would help, too — a better-skilled workforce would also help in recruiting new employers. Demography is not just destiny; sometimes it’s public policy, too.
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