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Virginia sees population booms and big declines

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RICHMOND — So far this decade, Virginia has grown — and shrunk — in population.

Seventy of the state’s 133 cities and counties gained population between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2018, according to data released this week by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia. The population of Loudoun County, in Northern Virginia, jumped 30 percent, to more than 406,000.

But the remaining 63 localities — largely rural areas in the southern and western parts of the state — saw population declines. The population of Buchanan County, in the Appalachian Mountains bordering West Virginia and Kentucky, dropped more than 10 percent, to fewer than 21,600 residents.

Overall, Virginia’s population has grown by 6.5 percent since the 2010 census, passing 8.5 million residents last year, according to the Weldon Cooper Center, which generates the state’s official population estimates.

Even so, the state’s annual population growth this decade is the lowest since the 1920s, the center said. During the past five years, the commonwealth’s population has grown more slowly than the nation as a whole.

Hamilton Lombard, a demographer who prepared the annual estimates, said Virginia’s population growth has slowed largely because of “domestic out-migration” — more people moving out of Virginia than into the state.

“Over the last five years, 80,000 more Virginians moved out than residents from other states moved in,” Lombard said. “Many were young families, which helped cause Virginia’s public school enrollment to decline last fall for the first time since 1984.”

The center’s estimates show that Northern Virginia’s population has grown about 13 percent since 2010. Of the 10 fastest-growing localities in Virginia, eight are part of the Washington, D.C., metro area. Besides Loudoun County, they include Falls Church, Fredericksburg, Arlington, Manassas Park, Stafford County, Prince William County and Alexandria.

View an interactive map of Virginia's population here: 

The other localities in the top 10 are New Kent County, between Richmond and Williamsburg, which grew 22 percent — second only to Loudoun County; and Charlottesville, which grew 13.5 percent.

On the other hand, every Virginia county bordering North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky lost population this decade. Besides Buchanan County, the population declined 9 percent in Dickenson County and 7 percent in the counties of Wise, Tazewell, Alleghany and Surry and the cities of Emporia and Galax. Tazewell and Wise counties each lost more than 3,000 residents.

Augie Wallmeyer, author of the book “The Extremes of Virginia,” attributed the population decline in southern Virginia to a multitude of overlapping conditions.

The most glaring reason is financial insecurity, Wallmeyer said. With the decline of the coal, textile and agriculture industries, Southside Virginia has struggled to provide jobs and economic opportunities, especially for young people. As a result, they move out of the state or to northern parts of Virginia to find work and settle down.

Wallmeyer said other reasons people are leaving could include drug problems in the southern part of the state, lack of higher education and a lack of quality health care.

“The state has known about these problems for quite some time and is taking efforts to put programs in place to make better opportunities available, particularly for young people,” he said.

One effort involves the move by Amazon to invest $2.5 billion in Northern Virginia and open a headquarters in the area. With that initiative, the state will help community colleges provide trade and technical training so that workers can qualify for jobs in today’s more modern economy, Wallmeyer said.

“A big part of that package deal is a significant commitment by the state to drastically increase its training of computer engineering people,” Wallmeyer said. “That’s going to help all of Virginia, not just Northern Virginia.”

He is optimistic that such initiatives can revitalize the economy and stabilize the population in rural areas.

“It’s not going to happen to happen today or tonight or tomorrow, but the seeds are planted,” Wallmeyer said.

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