Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV


April 1, 2014

Crunching numbers: Census estimates a concern

— — The latest U.S. Census population estimates for southern West Virginia are reason for concern. Both Mercer and McDowell counties lost more than 400 residents between 2012 and 2013, according to the estimates. That’s an alarming decrease in population and an unfortunate continuation of what we have been seeing for several years now in the coalfield counties.

Simply put, our region cannot afford to lose population on a yearly basis. The U.S. Census estimates released last week suggest a loss of 411 people in Mercer County and a loss of 457 in McDowell County. Monroe County was more stable having lost only 13 people over the past year.

 These new population estimates do not bode well for our region. If this trend continues, we can expect significant and potentially crippling population losses when the next 10 year Census is completed in 2020.

The city of Bluefield is a good example of a municipality that could be adversely impacted by additional population losses. In the 2010 Census, the city of Bluefield recorded a population of 10,447 citizens — a significant loss from the 2000 Census, but still above the 10,000 population estimate necessary to maintain a class two city status. But staying above 10,000 citizens without significant economic development and growth over the next couple of years will be a challenge for city leaders. State and federal funding, among other factors, are directly tied to population.

The local school system is often a good indicator of population gains and losses in our region. And Mercer County Schools reported an October 2012 student enrollment of 9,660 students. But by October of 2013, the student enrollment had fallen to 9,505 students. And unfortunately, school systems across our region have been losing students on a yearly basis for quite some time now.

The population losses reported in the most recent Census estimates should be viewed as  a warning. And efforts must be made now to stem future losses. And that starts with retaining those families we already have while working to attract others. But it will take new and good-paying jobs to make that happen. That is why local leaders must place a renewed focus on economic development and related growth in our region.

Our population can only grow if our region grows as well. Many who are leaving our region may be doing so in the search for better jobs and gainful employment. And that’s unfortunate. There are promising projects in the works — such as the new Bluefield College School of Dentistry as well as the long-planned multi-purpose/equestrian center near Athens — but this is only a start. We need more good-paying jobs in the manufacturing, technology and health care fields, as well as traditional service and retail positions, to help stem our troubling population losses.

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