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Shrinking Cities: Four of Nation’s 10 Fastest-Declining Metro Areas Are in West Virginia

Photo by Eric Ayres Intertwined with the multimillion-dollar public and private investments throughout the Wheeling area are images of vacant buildings and urban decay. Local officials are working to erase this image, which reflects a continued trend of population and job loss in the area. U.S. Census Bureau figures show that five of the 10 fastest declining metropolitan areas of the nation are either inside or include parts of West Virginia.

WHEELING — Population loss is a dilemma facing many metropolitan areas throughout West Virginia — some sitting among the fastest-shrinking metro areas in America — and local leaders in those communities are optimistic in their efforts to reverse this stigmatic trend.

As official numbers from the 2020 U.S. Census come into focus, the figures for the Mountain State paint a dismal picture from many angles. Census data released earlier this year showed that West Virginia lost a higher percentage of its population than any other state in the nation.

Last week a report by national media outlet The Hill listed the 10 fastest shrinking cities in America. Based on the new U.S. Census data, the report showed that half of those rapidly dwindling metropolitan areas were inside or included parts of West Virginia.

Topping the list of fastest shrinking cities in America was Pine Bluff, Arkansas, followed by Danville, Illinois. Reports cite these area’s dependency on dwindling industrial and manufacturing jobs as the primary cause for the significant drops in population.

Loss of a booming steel industry over the decades has been attributed to the decline in many of these shrinking cities, including those in West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle. Likewise, coal has been an economic backbone of the Ohio Valley and other Rust Belt regions of the country, but the heyday of coal is set further in the past as pressure continues in the wake of an ongoing push for more green energy.

Among the fastest shrinking communities, the metropolitan area around Cumberland, Maryland — which includes portions of West Virginia — ranked third on the list, followed by the Beckley, W.Va., metro area, with a 7.9% decrease in population.

According to the 2020 Census, the community of Johnstown, Pa. — another formerly bustling steel town — came in fifth on the list of fastest shrinking communities in the nation, with the metro area of Charleston, W.Va., appearing in sixth place with a rate of decline of 6.9%.

“Population decline is not unique to Charleston — it’s affecting cities throughout our state,” Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin said. “While it isn’t a surprise, it’s a trend the city is working to reverse.”

Goodwin said some silver linings have come to light over the past year as communities faced unprecedented challenges through a global health crisis. Many communities are looking to take advantage of the emerging trends and to highlight the assets they can boast.

“One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us is that people can work remotely from anywhere,” Goodwin, a Wheeling native, noted. “Offering incentives, like we are doing with the Charleston Roots initiative, is encouraging folks who lived here previously or grew up here to come back home and attracting others to plant roots in our Capital City. In addition, money from the American Rescue Plan can help us build infrastructure that will encourage population growth.”

A targeted effort in recent decades accepts a shift away from reliance on the coal and steel industries as the driving economic force and biggest employers in the region’s communities. The loss of steel jobs has been cited as a major reason for the 6.1% decline in the ninth metropolitan community on the list, which is here in the Ohio Valley: the Steubenville-Weirton area. Rounding out the list at number 10 is the greater Wheeling metropolitan area, which comes in with a 5.7% decline in population.

In light of the recent census numbers, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott has expressed optimism in the fact that the most recent decline indicates a major slowdown in the loss compared to evidence of mass exodus reported in the last several decades of U.S. Census figures.

“As I have stated previously, though Wheeling has been losing population for nearly a century, the rate of decline has decreased considerably in recent years,” Elliott said. “So much so that it is not unreasonable to expect population growth at some point during this decade. But we are still currently paying the demographic price for losing so many people — particularly young people looking for jobs — during the 1980s and 1990s as our regional industrial base declined.”

That trend has translated into fewer births to offset the region’s population loss from mortality, Elliott noted.

“Indeed if you look at the other metropolitan areas with population losses higher than Wheeling’s, you will see a strong correlation with those areas having lost their industrial base in the past few decades as we did,” he said. The other correlation that I would note from this published list is the prevalence of cities from West Virginia. That should not be surprising considering that ours is the only state to have any considerable population loss in the past decade.”

Aside from the industrial-era’s turning of the page, West Virginia has continued to carry a stigma that paints the state as one that is anything but progressive, the mayor indicated.

“Unfairly or not, West Virginia continues to suffer from an image problem nationwide,” Elliott said. “And that is not helpful for West Virginia cities trying to attract businesses and residents from other places. As a state, we need to be ever mindful of the presence of so many stubborn West Virginia stereotypes and recognize our responsibility to confront and refute — rather than confirm — them at every opportunity.”

Elliott said this is why he has been publicly critical of initiatives emanating from the state legislature in recent years, such as taking action to protect Confederate monuments, to override municipal LGBTQ nondiscrimination ordinances and to ban transgender athletes from competing in female sports, along with other measures driven by divisive partisan politics.

“To me, initiatives like this are just pandering to cable-news driven grievances instead of trying to solve real problems,” he said. “But beyond their actual impact is the way these initiatives are perceived by the outside world. They paint a picture of West Virginia as unwelcoming and close-minded. That’s not who we are. And when we are already standing in a population loss hole, perpetuating these stereotypes about West Virginia amounts to nothing more than digging.

“We can and must work together to rebrand West Virginia in a way that highlights its opportunities and makes clear that they are available to all.”

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