How Virginia’s Slowing Population Growth Plays Out Locally

Virginia's population growth is slowing, but four distinct patterns emerge within the state.

Virginia’s population growth is slowing overall, but four distinct patterns emerge within the state.

Speaking of slower population growth… Even though Virginia’s population growth is slowing overall, the dynamics play out differently at a local and regional level.

Luke Juday, director of planning for the City of Waynesboro, has developed a useful schema for examining Virginia’s cities and counties. He has created a matrix based on two variables: whether a locality is experiencing net in-migration or out-migration, and whether it is experiencing natural increase or natural decrease. Writing in the January 2017 issue of the Virginia News Letter, he describes four categories:

Booming. Booming localities are experiencing both in-migration and natural population increase. One sub-set of this group consists of central metropolitan areas such as Arlington County, and the cities of Alexandria, Charlottesville and Richmond, which are experiencing a renaissance fueled by waves of incoming young adults. Another sub-set is comprised of suburban or exurban counties experiencing significant in-migration. Three examples are Montgomery, Albemarle and Rockingham counties.

The great challenge for booming counties, writes Juday, is accommodating that growth. Providing room for an expanding population can keep housing prices from skyrocketing, thus avoiding future issues. On the other hand, these localities need to be sure that what they build withstands the test of time.

Shedding. Shedding communities continue to gain population through natural increase but are experiencing out-migration. Examples include Fairfax County, Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Hampton and Newport News. In some instances, the key driver is a high cost of housing and limited housing options that push young families out of the jurisdiction. In others, however, Juday suggests, inner cities may be affordable but they’re not desirable. The challenge is to find new ways to add housing and/or make the locality a more attractive place to live.

Attracting. These communities are losing population through natural decrease, yet still manage to attract in-migration. This pattern is particularly common in the New River, Central Piedmont, Blue Ridge and Chesapeake Bay areas that can exploit their natural beauty to attract older adults in compensation of lower birth rates.

Declining. Declining localities are experiencing both out-migration and natural decrease. Residents are aging, and no one is replacing them. These counties are concentrated in Southwest and Southside Virginia, with a smattering along the Blue Ridge. These jurisdictions face the greatest challenge. How do they promote economic development, and how do they maintain the level of government services?

Declining localities, suggests Juday, need to cope with eroding populations the same way that Youngstown, Ohio, did in the 1990s: planning for population decrease by structuring public service and infrastructure projects to be sustainable with a smaller population. Regional cooperation is one way to accomplish that aim.

For both attracting and declining communities, Juday also suggests linking to a nearby metropolitan area to entice highly educated and well-paid commuters to patronize local services and agricultural businesses. Such a strategy would likely be more successful than trying to attract new industry. Floyd County reversed population by attracting workers who enjoyed the county’s quality of life and commuted to the Blacksburg metropolitan area. Counties outside of Washington, D.C., have seen similar trends.

Similarly, these localities can find ways to serve metropolitan economies from afar, most obviously by attracting retirees and vacationers. The Chesapeake Bay counties, Blue Ridge counties, and counties around Smith Mountain Lake have reinvigorated local economies by appealing to outsiders who build and purchase homes.

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One response to “How Virginia’s Slowing Population Growth Plays Out Locally

  1. Excellent article and analysis. This is where our future should lie. Making these distinctions then formulating policies and actions that mitigate losses and seize opportunities based on keen understanding of the dynamics uniquely peculiar to each locale.

    Driving through the smaller towns and cities of Virginia you can see the crying need for this mix of vision, planning and action again and again as you pass though the prosperity and growth places just up and down the road from the dying places.

    Once the dying starts it becomes ever harder to reverse but most always can be reversed with the right mix of vision, planning and action by local leaders. Prosperity too when attended to becomes cumulative, feeding on itself.

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