Labor Day is now done, football is back and that means one thing: The person knocking on your door will either be a local kid selling something as a fund-raiser for school or a candidate looking for votes.
If it’s the neighborhood kid, buy whatever it is he or she is selling. It’s for a good cause. If it’s a politician, though, be a little more wary about buying. Herein are some handy questions to have for candidates. They fit best for candidates for county supervisor. Conveniently, many localities have those on the ballot his fall. A lot of those candidates are unopposed — but that doesn’t relieve them of the necessity to answer some of these questions, because they’ll have to address these issues whether they realize it or not. The candidates may come prepared to talk about tax rates or trash collection or even our favorite topic, economic development. Those are important, of course. But here’s the factor that drives almost everything governments have to grapple with: Demographics. Most localities in Southwest and Southside Virginia are losing population. Candidates there ought to be asked what they’ll do to reverse those trends. Here are questions tailored for candidates in three specific localities:
1. Roanoke County is gaining population, so it would appear to be off the hook for this question. It’s not, though. Roanoke County’s overall population growth obscures a worrisome trend beneath the surface: Roanoke County has a huge imbalance between deaths and births: Since 2010, the county has had 1,211 more people die than have been born. Only three localities in the state have had a bigger imbalance between deaths and births — Henry County (1,524 more deaths than births), Danville (1,337) and Pittsylvania County (1,321). Just behind Roanoke County is Tazewell County (1,197). That’s not the company Roanoke County wants to be keeping. Those localities are, demographically speaking, dying. The only reason that Roanoke County is gaining population is because enough people are moving in to more than make up the difference. That’s a good thing, of course, but the net effect is that Roanoke County’s population is getting older. The median age is now 43.4 — significantly higher than the state median of 37.9. Roanoke County needs younger adults. How does the candidate at your door propose to make that happen?
2. Franklin County candidates haven’t had to address these questions before. From the 1970s onward, Franklin County was one of the fastest-growing localities in the state — a combination of growth around Smith Mountain Lake and exurban growth out of Roanoke. Now, suddenly, that population growth has come to a halt. In fact, the latest population estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia say that Franklin County’s population has started shrinking. It’s down just 32 people, to 56,127, so statistically speaking, it’s basically flat. Still, this is a turnaround of historic proportions. Franklin County hasn’t lost population since the 1940s, when World War II and the economic changes it set in motion shrank the county’s population. Why is Franklin now losing population? First, the county’s in-migration has slowed — to a net of just 430 this decade. Second, deaths outnumber births by 462. Hence the net result of 32 fewer people. This is a new phenomenon for Franklin County. Historically, births have outnumbered deaths there. Now, since 2010, it’s the other way around. You’ve heard of a “baby boom.” Franklin County is starting to experience the first stages of a “death boom” – a natural consequence of an older population of retirees.
There’s another factor at work in Franklin County, too. More people are now moving out than moving in. Since 2010, the county still has net in-migration but behind those numbers, there’s been a switch. Starting in 2013, out-migration exceeded in-migration. Now, four of the past six years have been marked by net out-migration. This is a stunning reversal. That means the county is now losing people two ways — by more people moving out than in, and by more people dying than being born. Demographically speaking, the lake’s growth has always made Franklin County different. Now, though, it’s starting to look a lot more like other localities in Southside and Southwest Virginia. How do supervisor candidates intend to reverse these trends? (One possible answer is by attracting more jobs to the county, but this is a chicken-and-egg problem, because jobs go where the workforce is.)
3. Pulaski County would appear to have some unflattering demographic trends: It’s been losing population since 2000 and the Weldon Cooper Center projects that the county will keep losing population — at ever-increasing rates. From a peak of 35,127 in 2000, the county is now down to an estimated 34,183 — and is projected to fall to 31,805 by 2040. County administrator Jonathan Sweet — backed by the current board – has a different idea, though. The official goal is to grow the county’s population to 40,000 by 2030 — and there’s good reason to think this goal, while ambitious, is also realistic.
When we dig into Pulaski’s demographic data, we see the county, like many others, a big imbalance between deaths and births— 906 more deaths than births since 2010. However, the county is also starting to see a healthy number of people move into the county. Net in-migration for the decade is 217. That may not seem a lot but it’s more than in most of its neighboring counties: Bland County (net migration of -131), Carroll County (-37), Giles County (-2) and Wythe County (86 on the plus side). The county has also made some moves specifically intended grow its population. Voters helped more than they can ever know when they passed a bond referendum last year to build a new middle school. It’s hard to attract young families if the kids have to go to school in antiquated buildings. Pulaski also hopes that growth from neighboring Montgomery County — the fastest-growing locality west of the Blue Ridge — will push across the New River. Virginia Tech’s recent over-enrollment may be a problem for Blacksburg, but it’s an opportunity for Pulaski. The question for Pulaski candidates is whether they support this push to grow the population — and the things required to make that happen. The argument for: The county’s infrastructure can support 40,000 people — and this is all part of building a new economy. The county’s former textile economy is gone, but it’s building a new one based on advanced manufacturing and, perhaps, technology start-ups. Voters in other localities may want to ask their candidates why they’re not doing some of the things Pulaski is doing.