Valley Population Totals Dwindling

WHEELING – In what has become a trend, every Ohio Valley county saw a loss in population over the past year, according to data released Thursday.

That trend isn’t unique to the area, however, as West Virginia as a whole lost total population. The data – released by the U.S. Census Bureau – show 41 of 55 counties in the state lost population from 2012 to 2013, with 15 counties losing more than 200 residents.

Those 15 counties include Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel in the Northern Panhandle, with Ohio County losing the most residents with 319. Marshall County’s population decreased by 226, while Wetzel County’s fell by 215. Other Northern Panhandle counties seeing population loss include Brooke (111), Hancock (79) and Tyler (56).

Ohio County Commissioner Randy Wharton said every year new data suggests the county continues to see a drop in population – and every year he has a hard time determining the cause.

“I find it hard to come up with a reason as to why that happens,” he said of the 1.6 percent drop since 2010. “We have a low cost of living here, low utility costs, great public and private schools, hospitals, recreation … we have a lot of good things happening here.”

Wharton said jobs and “economic opportunities” are the main reason people continue to leave – a problem in which Ohio County is not alone.

“It’s not like they’re leaving Ohio County to go to Belmont County,” he said. “They move because they can’t find a good job or one they’re trained to do. It’s a trend that we’re all working very hard to reverse.”

The loss of population in Marshall County reflects a 2-percent reduction since 2010, a trend Commissioner Brian Schambach said could be worse.

“I think if we didn’t have the influx of gas and oil activity, it could be worse,” he said.

However, Schambach said while that industry has brought thousands of people to the region looking to take advantage of the Marcellus shale boom, Marshall County has not been able to take full advantage.

“We’ve seen such an influx of people, but some of those individuals working here weren’t able to acquire housing and are living elsewhere,” he said. “I’m not sure we were able to capitalize on that growth.”

Schambach also cited the closing of large employers such as TeleTech and nearby Ormet, as well as cutbacks in industrial jobs in the county, as reasons for the continued loss of population. However, he said county officials are continuing to work to take advantage of opportunities in the gas and oil industry, as well other possible expansion in industry.

“There’s some ancillary downstream business coming in, and still some things coming to fruition that we’re working on,” he said. “We’ve seen such a change in many things, it’s hard to put a finger on one industry and say that will either make or break (population).”

Monongalia became the state’s third-largest county and joined Kanawha and Berkeley as the only counties with more than 100,000 residents. Overall, West Virginia’s population fell nearly 2,400 last year, and the state now has 1.85 million residents.

The outlook is seemingly better across the river, as Eastern Ohio counties fared better according to the data. Three local counties lost fewer than 100 residents, including Belmont (55), Harrison (83) and Monroe (4).

That’s a fact that gives Belmont County Commissioner Matt Coffland hope.

“I think our declining days are over,” Coffland said. “I think we are going to see increasing population around the corner.”

Coffland cited the oil and gas industry, as well as mining and other new businesses as the catalyst for the slowed decline. He said the lack of available housing is a tangible example of more people coming into the county.

“At one time, we had pretty good availability in the housing market, and that isn’t there now,” he said. “We are very fortunate with what’s going on here. We’ve been through some bad times, but things are getting better.”

In total, Ohio lost almost 7,400 people to migration last year, with almost half of that loss in Cuyahoga County. Locally, Jefferson County saw the largest loss, with 396 people leaving. That represents a 2.5 percent loss since 2010, far higher than that of its Eastern Ohio neighbors.

That didn’t stop the state’s population from growing by 17,777 to more more than 11.5 million residents last year.