As population booms in Northern Virginia — contributing to growth that could make Virginia the 10th most populous state by 2040 — current population declines in Southwest Virginia’s coalfields region will continue.
Nearly every locality in the coalfields region will lose population through 2040, with Buchanan County projected to be the state’s fastest-shrinking locality, according to the latest projections from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
The coalfields region — Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Scott, Russell, Tazewell and Wise counties and city of Norton — is expected to lose about 8 percent of its population between 2020 and 2040, the center concluded.
Most of Virginia’s projected growth in the coming two decades will occur in and around cities and population centers such as Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond, while rural areas will experience slow growth or no growth at all, the study found.
While the losses are most drastic in Buchanan County, the study predicts an uptick in population growth in Lee County — the only coalfields locality projected to increase its population between 2020 and 2040. Even there, the population would only grow by about 70 people per year within the 20-year timeframe.
The study indicates the trend of people leaving the region as the coal industry declines will continue through the next two decades.
The coal industry’s struggles have left far Southwest Virginia scrambling to diversify its economy. High unemployment has created an exodus of young people, which in turn has led to a decline in enrollment and state funding to the region’s public schools.
Shonel Sen, a research and policy analyst with the Weldon Cooper Center, characterized the population decline as a combination of people leaving the coalfields, lower birth rates and an aging population.
Farther to the north, the population of the Roanoke Valley will grow moderately over the same time period with Roanoke County growing faster than Roanoke, but the city retaining more residents. The county is projected to add about 7,800 residents and Roanoke will add about 3,400 people between 2020 and 2040. Roanoke County will exceed 100,000 people in the 2030s, the study said.
Roanoke is projected to top the 100,000 residential mark before 2020 — a number the city hasn’t seen since the 1980 census.
Salem’s population is projected to grow ever so slightly — only about 186 people over the 20-year time period.
“The growth is plateauing out, but you do see every consecutive decade the population is going up slightly,” Sen said.
Elsewhere in the Roanoke metro area, Botetourt County, which has made a string of economic development announcements that will mean several hundred new jobs in coming years, is expected to grow from an estimated 33,176 people today to 33,700 by 2020 and nearly 36,700 by 2040.
Franklin County, meanwhile, is expected to grow by more than 10,000 people by 2040, to an estimated 66,700.
In the Lynchburg region, Bedford County is expected to gain nearly 15,000 people by 2040.
In the New River Valley, Radford should grow by 11.9 percent from 2010 to 2020 — making it one of the commonwealth’s top 20 fastest growing localities.
Montgomery County is slated to grow from 101,433 residents in 2020 to 117,505 residents in 2040, keeping its status as the fastest-growing locality in the region.
Education and employment are the two main drivers of growth, Sen said.
With a population of 8.3 million people, Virginia is the 12th most populous state, but is projected to surge ahead of Michigan and New Jersey to the top 10 in 2040.
As more people move into Virginia than move out, Loudoun County is projected to be the fastest growing locality in the commonwealth. Loudoun has an estimated 2016 population of 385,327 — already surpassing the entire Roanoke metro area. It’s expected to grow to nearly 700,000 by 2040.