Despite drilling boom, population continues to dip

WHEELING – Despite promises of job growth resulting from the local oil and natural gas boom, the aging Upper Ohio Valley has lost an estimated 1.2 percent of its population since the 2010 Census, figures released this week indicate.

Despite modest overall increases in West Virginia and Ohio, total population in the local 10-county area – Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall, Wetzel and Tyler counties in the Mountain State and Jefferson, Belmont, Monroe and Harrison counties in the Buckeye State – has dropped by an estimated 4,012 residents, from 328,701 to 324,689, according to 2012 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

Each of the 10 local counties saw population loss, ranging from a 0.6-percent decline in Monroe County to 1.9 percent in Jefferson County.

Wheeling’s estimated population dipped by 273 residents from 28,486 in 2011 to 28,213 in 2012, a decline of just under 1 percent. But Mayor Andy McKenzie believes that estimate may not be indicative of activity in the area, where natural gas industry workers are living practically year-round, staying in hotels and dining in restaurants although their official residence may still be elsewhere.

“They’re not taking into account the thousands of people that are showing up (from) Oklahoma, Tennessee, Louisiana,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie pointed out that with more than a month remaining in the fiscal year, Business and Occupation tax revenue already has exceeded last year’s record collections, and he believes the Friendly City may be poised to see population gains in the years ahead.

“Business activity in the city is up,” he said.

Ohio County Commissioner Orphy Klempa also believes the gas industry still holds plenty of opportunity for the area going forward.

“I always look at everything on a positive note. … If we’re successful in getting some permanent jobs here, and that takes a lot of work … I think there’s a lifetime of opportunity here to change that trend,” Klempa said.

Christiadi, a demographer with West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research who only uses one name, said aging population combined with comparatively few new manufacturing jobs to replace massive losses since the turn of the century have led to a slowdown in overall population growth.

Study after study has predicted major job growth as a result of natural gas drilling activity, but reality thus far has failed to match expectations. Christiadi believes continued low natural gas prices may also be to blame for sluggish job gains in the industry.

“It’s going to take a while. … In the near future, I don’t see that the price of natural gas is going to increase significantly, so that means we don’t see as many job opportunities as we expect in this industry,” said Christiadi.

Most area municipalities’ population estimates declined by roughly 1 percent, with a few municipalities such as Toronto and Mingo Junction seeing more severe losses of 2.3 percent and 2.1 percent, respectively. Conversely, a few communities experienced comparatively smaller losses, such as New Martinsville, where the population estimate declined by just 0.3 percent from 5,366 residents to 5,350.

New population figures for other area communities include Weirton, which saw a decline of 243 residents from 19,746 to 19,503; Steubenville, down 230 residents from 18,659 to 18,429; Moundsville, down to 9,173 from 9,318; Martins Ferry, down to 6,842 from 6,915; Bellaire, down to 4,220 from 4,278; and Follansbee, which has dipped from 2,986 residents to 2,956.

Only one Upper Ohio Valley community saw its population grow – New Athens in Harrison County, which now has an estimated 327 residents compared to 320 a year ago.

Negative population trends could lead to two local municipalities in Ohio dipping below 5,000 residents by the 2020 Census, which would mean those municipalities would no longer be classified as cities, but as villages.

Toronto’s 2012 population estimate is 4,972, down from 5,091 residents counted in the 2010 Census. And St. Clairsville is approaching that threshold, dropping from 5,184 residents in 2010 to an estimated 5,126 in 2012.

In West Virginia, Christiadi said the growth that accounts for West Virginia’s slight overall population gain is concentrated in a few areas, including the Eastern Panhandle and the Morgantown and Huntington areas – both major university towns. A younger population usually translates to a higher birth rate, Christiadi said, and job creators are attracted to such areas with a large pool of young, skilled people who may be more willing to work for entry-level wages.

For example, Granville, W.Va., a town of less than 2,000 about 2 miles away from downtown Morgantown, saw an 85 percent gain in population from 2011 to 2012.

“It’s a small town, but there’s new student housing built in that area, and it gets filled up very fast,” Christiadi said.

Morgantown, with a surge of 1,300 residents over the last two years, soon could supplant Parkersburg as West Virginia’s third-largest city. Their population estimates are 31,000 and 31,261, respectively.

Outside the isolated pockets of growth, the overall picture for the Mountain State is much more bleak. Thirty-six of West Virginia’s 55 counties saw their population estimates decline from 2011, an increase from the 29 counties where those numbers dropped the year before.

And 46 West Virginia counties experienced negative natural growth – meaning deaths exceeded births – between 2011 and 2012, up from 39 counties between 2010 and 2011. As an aging population means fewer women of childbearing age, Christiadi believes the only way to reverse this trend is through migration into the area from elsewhere, a factor that will depend on the availability of jobs.

“We are among the oldest states in the nation. … There’s no way we’re going to gain population through natural growth,” he said.