The census comes in April, and by year’s end we’ll have a whole new set of numbers to pore through from the official head count, but right now we have the next best thing: The state’s official population estimates.
These are a lot more than guesswork. They’re based on actual data — birth records, death records, housing permits, and the like. They’re compiled by the demographers at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia and are used for lots of state spending decisions where allocations are based on population.
That’s the boring disclaimer. Now for the exciting stuff. Demography is destiny, the famous saying goes, but it’s also our here-and-now — and here’s what the latest round of population estimates tell us about the state we live in.
1. Virginia is still gaining population, but not nearly as fast as it once was. In fact, its annual growth rate is now the slowest since the 1920s —0.5% then, 0.7% now. What’s happened? Much of Southwest and Southside Virginia are losing population, which doesn’t help. The biggest factor, though, is the economic slowdown in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads as a result of federal budget sequestration, the Weldon Cooper Center tells us. “Northern Virginia” and “slowdown” are words we’re accustomed to seeing in the same sentence. And it may not seem like much of a slowdown to us — much of our region is losing population while parts of the urban crescent are still gaining population by more than 10%. Still, that’s how it balances out. Since 2010, the state’s population is up by 6.7% — about half of what it was in previous decades. We’ll have more to say about Northern Virginia’s demographic trends — and what they mean for the rest of the state — on Tuesday. Until then, here’s some context: Northern Virginia accounts for two-thirds of the state’s population growth. Indeed, just one county — Loudoun County — accounts for nearly one-fifth of the state’s increased population. During the past nine years, Loudoun has essentially added the population of Montgomery County. Speaking of which . . .
2. Montgomery County is now the most populous locality west of the Blue Ridge. From 94,392 residents in 2010, Montgomery County has now crossed the 100,000 threshold and is home to an estimated 100,073 people. Roanoke hopes to get back above the 100,000 mark in the census but these estimates say it’s not there yet — it’s up from 97,032 to 99,348. Roanoke County lags slightly behind, up from 92,376 to 93,805. Behind these numbers are both lessons and implications. Montgomery County’s 6% population growth is almost on track with the state’s overall 6.7% growth over the past decade — and Radford’s 10% growth is even higher. Those two localities stand out as the high-growth exceptions in a part of the state historically marked by slow growth — and sometimes outright shrinkage. The reasons should be obvious — Virginia Tech and Radford University. Across the country, we’re seeing economic growth clustering in communities that have highly educated workforces. Our region’s economic engine was once a literal one — the locomotives on the railroad. Now it’s those two universities. Fortunately, Roanoke has now claimed pieces of both through its health care economy — both Tech and Radford now have a presence in the city. These aren’t just population estimates; they really are markers for how the economy is evolving.
3. Franklin County’s population decline is accelerating. This is a turnaround of historic proportions. From the 1950s onward, Franklin has been gaining population. In the 1970s, after the creation of Smith Mountain Lake, it was one of the fastest-growing localities in the state — with its population growing by 33%. The 2010 census showed the county still growing by nearly 19%. Now that population growth has stopped — and the county is losing population for the first time since the 1940s, when World War II and its industrial demands transformed the nation. As recently as the 2017 estimates, Franklin County was still growing, just more slowly. Last year, for the first time, the estimates showed the county losing population — down 32 people from 2010. This year’s estimates say the county’s population is down by 377. Percentage-wise, that’s not a lot — 0.7% — but it’s a trend that ought to get the attention of every public official in Franklin County. Why is Franklin losing population? Easy. It’s aging out, a consequence of all those retirees at the lake (and an older rural population, in general). More people are moving into the county than moving out — a net gain of 258 that way. But deaths outnumbered births by 635. Given the actuarial tables, that number is only going to grow, which means Franklin’s population will shrink at an even faster rate unless either of two things happen — a lot more people move into the county, or there’s a sudden baby boom. The latter is not likely to happen unless there’s an influx of young adults — a trend that tends to solve two problems at once. Attracting those young adults is a more difficult problem because Franklin County is a net exporter of workers — nearly 61% of the county’s workers go to jobs outside the county. That’s one of the reasons Franklin County has invested in the 550-acre Summit View business park — to try to create more jobs in the county. Strangely, it’s still controversial. Some people have more trouble connecting the dots than others.
4. Roanoke’s population continues to grow slightly, but it’s driven mostly by births not people moving into the city. Maybe that doesn’t matter, but it does have implications. Through the ’80s and ’90s, the city lost population, dropping from a high of 100,220 in 1980 to a low of 94,911 in 2000. Since then, the city has been steadily gaining population. Since 2010, it’s up by 2,316 people. That’s more than the 2,121 people it gained in the previous decade. It’s instructive, though, to look at how that’s happening. There’s a net in-migration of 372 people — while births outnumber deaths by 1,944. It’s popular to say that the growth of downtown housing is driving the city’s population growth. That’s certainly helping, but what’s really happening is the city’s having a small baby boom. Some of that may be those young adults living downtown— there are now school bus stops downtown —but it’s still useful to know just how the city’s population is growing. Meanwhile, Roanoke County’s population is growing slightly, too, but it’s growing in a very different way. We’ll have more to say about that Monday.