Doing More With Less: Experts Say Wheeling Primed for Promising Future
WHEELING — While it’s undeniable the halving of the city’s population is a living memory, what that means going forward is more complicated — and potentially brighter — than it might look, according to a trio of experts.
One is a demographer who noted there are other markers that must be considered when looking at a city’s overall health. One is a residential recruiter who sees in communities such as Wheeling the exact atmosphere many Millennials and Gen Zers from outside the state are seeking. One is a military man, a strategist committed to a community-network model that is poised to quickly respond in a disaster-prone era.
How a population becomes low matters, according to Christiadi, who uses only the one name. He is a research associate specializing in migration patterns for the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
Is a population naturally low – like all of West Virginia, even cities such as Wheeling that saw industrial-era populations that were high, but only in comparison to other cities in the state? Or is it a naturally high-population center that has declined for some reason, possibly at a rapid rate?
“They are two different things,” Christiadi said.
When a city or region is generally low-population to start with, it likely developed in a way that allowed lower cost of living and higher quality of life, Christiadi explained. That set point tends to continue through population ups and downs, he said.
(A sampling of Wheeling’s ups and downs from U.S. Census figures: Population has been declining nearly 100 years and took a huge hit in the 1970s and 1980s. Loss has slowed since then, but the city stands at about 27,000 residents as of the 2020 count, about half the population of the 1940s.)
If a large population dissipates quickly, in contrast, Christiadi said the cost of living may become low but quality of life tends to lower as well. “If people are moving out, they may leave some run-down places and that’s not a good signal.”
He said that pattern is why Wheeling and West Virginia overall haven’t experienced a livability meltdown to date even though population has persistently declined. The state is actually losing residents at the highest rate in the nation, but he noted more populated areas could fare much worse if they were pulling the same kinds of numbers.
Two other markers indicate, in contrast to population loss, that Wheeling itself hasn’t really changed a great deal, Christiadi added.
One marker is job data. He looked at Ohio and Marshall counties which, along with Belmont County in Ohio, make up a Metropolitan Statistical Area of just under 150,000 residents.
“Despite population loss, there was a stable number of jobs,” Christiadi said, noting that means workers are still here. “Where are the people off to?”
A second marker suggests an answer, he said. Federal housing figures show property values in the Wheeling metro area increased by 35% in the last decade, a marker of good economic health and a significantly bigger rate of increase than the 11% seen in Charleston or Beckley.
Christiadi said the interplay of the numbers may mean many of those who’ve “left” Wheeling aren’t actually very far away.
“That’s what happens,” he said of this kind of migration trigger. “People are choosing not to stay that close to work, because they have lower housing costs living outside the city.”
He said this kind of population loss isn’t even really “migration.” It’s “location choice” based on individuals weighing cost of housing, taxes and transportation against benefits such as proximity to job, family and amenities such as parks.
“The city is actually pretty vibrant,” he said of Wheeling’s reality, population loss or not. “It’s still a job center. It’s still a good place to work.”
He noted that pandemic changes to worklife – remote jobs that are no longer tied to an office — will only magnify location choice movements. That could, ultimately, lead to in-migration if cost of living and quality of life inside Wheeling are viewed as better than another location.
“This is a great opportunity for a region that has good amenities to attract people to come in now that you can live anywhere,” Christiadi said. “West Virginia has a lot of that – good amenities.”
Natalie Roper is on it.
Roper works to both retain, attract and advance “young talent” to the state as outgoing director of Generation West Virginia. (Alex Weld, outgoing director of Wheeling Heritage, is soon moving into that position.)
“I’ve just loved it,” the former resident of rural Virginia said of what has amounted to quick access in her own case. “I’ve loved being a part of a small- to medium-sized city and really being a part of a community and making a difference.”
She said while the quality of life Christiadi spoke of clearly matters, Millennials and Gen Zers are also seeking a homebase where they can make a positive impact.
In communicating with more than 1,000 applicants to Generation’s Impact Fellowship, “without fail, they really talk about the importance of that community engagement and peer connections,” Roper said.
The fellowships link young state residents and would-be in-migrators to one-year positions – including professional work in architecture, engineering and data analysis — that have them in the workplace four days a week and volunteering in the community one day a week. In Wheeling, for example, she said fellows have worked at McKinley Architecture and Engineering and volunteered with Wheeling Heritage and the YWCA.
Noting that 80% of participants have remained in the state when their fellowships have ended, Roper believes the connection is clear. “People stay in places they feel invested in and a part of – and that’s especially true of this generation,” she said. “Let’s make that possible.”
Making that possible may involve longer-term strategy than the fellowship and other job-specific programs Generation is already providing, she added. She’s hoping to see cities and non-profits step up with initiatives such as setting aside seats on committees and councils for younger residents who are eager to participate.
She also hopes the state and related parties will continue to pursue quality internet access. Part of an all-remote staff herself, she said that is a critical part of making the state a good place to remain in or relocate to. Roper noted 100% of participants in a six-month software training program Generation runs are now remote workers.
“All of this … matters,” Roper said of a matrix of migration factors that also includes West Virginia’s outdoor recreation potential. “There’s just no silver bullet.”
There is a silver lining, however, according to Jim Hoyer.
Hoyer, retired adjutant general of West Virginia National Guard and head of the operations side of the state’s COVID-19 response, said he’s seen that again and again. He said West Virginia’s low population density is a distinct advantage when it comes to responding quickly to disasters of any kind.
The state’s networking-heavy response rubric to the pandemic is, he said, the same one the National Guard used for Superstorm Sandy, which dumped feet of snow on parts of West Virginia and left a swath of communities without power, and when a chemical spill left 300,000 people in and around Kanawha County without safe drinking water.
“It’s the fact that we have such a link to communities throughout the state,” Hoyer explained of being able to quickly tap into a network including everyone from emergency responders to pastors and pharmacists at high speed. The model is what he said allowed West Virginia to be first in the U.S. in getting nursing home residents vaccinated and the first to roll out vaccines to people in their 60s and, then, 50s.
While the state is recalculating exact vaccination percentages due to an irregularity in how they were being recorded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Hoyer said a high portion of West Virginians age 65 or older are fully vaccinated, with even more having at least one dose.
That community-linked success has given the state a buffer against the current surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, most of which involve the unvaccinated, he said. “Our hospitals are challenged right now, but they have yet to be overwhelmed.”