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Census: Continued Population Loss In Upper Ohio Valley

WHEELING — Local officials are disputing an annual population estimate from the federal government that shows the Ohio Valley continues to lose residents.

The estimate, released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau, indicates that the population in the Wheeling Metropolitan Statistical Area — which includes Ohio and Marshall counties in West Virginia and Belmont County in Ohio — now stands at 140,045, a decrease of 5.34 percent since the last Census in 2010.

Tim McCormick, president of Ohio County Commission, disagreed with the Census figures and questioned the methodology.

“We don’t know how they get their numbers. No one in the county office can tell where the population numbers come from,” McCormick said. “It’s kind of a mystery. We truly believe that with gas and oil folks coming in, we should be up at least 1,000 (people), without a doubt.”

Overall in the Upper Ohio Valley, the 10-county region — Hancock, Brooke, Ohio, Marshall and Wetzel counties in West Virginia and Jefferson, Harrison, Belmont and Monroe in Ohio — lost an estimated 2,712 residents from the 2017 estimate to the numbers released Thursday. The total estimated population of the 10 counties now stands at 310,089.

The study shows that Ohio County lost 301 residents, which would put the population at 41,755 as of July 1, 2018. The decline by 0.71 percent was still better than the other Northern Panhandle counties.

“That’s not a lot, but I guarantee there are two or three times that number of oil and gas people who would dispute that,” McCormick said, alluding to his belief that the county’s population actually increased over the past year.

Marshall County Administrator Betsy Frohnapfel agreed that the natural gas industry has likely boosted the number of people living and working here. Marshall County saw the sharpest population decline in the latest numbers, losing 1.4 percent of its residents.

“We’re definitely seeing an influx of people into Marshall County,” Frohnapfel said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that there are more people in the county. It’s how the Census chooses to count people.”

She pointed to “transient workers” who temporarily move into the area, but are still counted as living in their hometowns.

“So that doesn’t do anything for the communities they’re living in now,” she said. “That’s very hard to calculate.”

Daniel Velez, a spokesman for the Census Bureau, noted that the population decline in the Wheeling MSA slowed compared to the losses two years ago. He added that the estimates is as of last July, so the numbers likely have changed over the past nine months.

“So while the area still incurred another loss, it did slow,” Velez said.

Christiadi, an associate researcher of demography at West Virginia University, said the annual estimates suggest a troubling picture for the state. The 2018 estimate puts West Virginia’s statewide population at just under 1.806 million, which is about 2,000 more people than the 2000 Census and a decline of nearly 20,000 people since the last official tally in 2010. Christiadi thinks its likely West Virginia will lose one of its three congressional districts following the 2020 Census.

“The story is the same across the state,” he said. “It’s about the same as a few years ago. We’ve been seeing this decline for quite a while.”

Only 10 of West Virginia’s 55 counties saw a population increase in 2018, with Berkeley County seeing an estimated 2,116 new residents. That number was offset by the state’s largest county, Kanawha, which lost an estimated 2,856 residents between 2017 and 2018.

The state’s population decline has less to do with “negative net migration,” Christiadi said, and more to do with the gap between births and deaths. He added that researchers noticed an improvement in the state’s employment situation over the past six months.

“Some places do experience this emptying out and suffer all the problems associated with population decline,” Christiadi said. “In terms of employment, it’s declining in the last few years, but it’s not as bad as the decline in population.”

He disagreed with claims by local officials that the estimates are flawed. According to the Census Bureau, the annual estimate is produced by taking the area’s population base, subtracting the number of deaths over the past year and adding births and suspected migration numbers.

“I think the methodology is pretty solid,” he said. “It could be the place of residency and the place of work is different.”

McCormick is looking forward to the official Census count next year that will offer a more accurate picture on the region’s population. The Ohio County Commission is working to create a “Complete Count” committee to assist the Census Bureau in promoting responses by county residents to “get as accurate figures as possible.”

“The Census is the basis for a lot of government programs, something like school lunches,” he said. “Accuracy is an issue, but I can’t speak to other counties. They reached out to no one in the county. It’s a mystery to how they came up with it. We’re not being critical. We just want to know.”

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