Region losing political clout as census shows population still decreasing

Posted on Aug 29, 2021

By CHARLES BOOTHE Bluefield Daily Telegraph Aug 29, 2021

BLUEFIELD — The 2020 census shows that all area counties in both states lost population since 2010 and that does not bode well for funding or political power.

Virginia as a state gained population in that 10-year period, from 8 million to 8.5 million, a 6.7 percent increase.

However, Southwest Virginia counties saw an overall loss of 8.4 percent.

According to preliminary estimates, Tazewell County’s population fell from 45,078 in 2010 to 40,429 in 2020, a 10.3 percent drop.

Buchanan County saw a decline from 24,098 to 20,355, a 15.5 percent decrease while Bland County’s population fell from 6,824 to 6,270, an 8 percent drop.

Giles County had the lowest population loss during that 10-year span, from 17,286 in 2010 to 16,787 in 2020, a 3.3 percent drop.

Job loss is the primary reason for the population decrease, said Tazewell County Southern District Supervisor Mike Hymes.

“The census numbers are very concerning but not unexpected given the anti-coal Obama Administration was in control from 2009 to 2017 so our coal related jobs have declined and we have been unable to reverse the job decline,” he said. “Reduced population in Southwest Virginia will negatively impact our influence in Richmond and further reduce our ability to promote our county and our more conservative Tazewell County values.”

Del. James W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell County, said that efforts are being made to reverse the trend.

“It is saddening to see Southwest Virginia continue to lose population,” he said.” It is very similar to what occurred in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia many years ago. Some of our best talent is being forced to leave.”

Morefield said strong efforts are being made to further diversify the economy, though.

“Some of these include ATV tourism, investing in renewable energy projects like the Hurley solar project, large coal and coke producers such as SunCoke investing $50 Million dollars in a foundry plant conversion in Buchanan County, to Project Jonah, a $228 Million dollar indoor salmon farm and processing facility that is currently under construction in Tazewell and Russell Counties,” he said. “I think it is apparent to leaders from our region that if localities are going to stop the loss of population they must partner with one another and stop competing. “

Progress is already being seen on that front, he said, with the coalfield counties of Tazewell, Buchanan, and Russell forming a regional industrial development authority.

“Project Jonah will be one of the first projects from which those counties will share the tax revenue on,” he said. “It is uncertain how the redistricting process will play out, but it is important to make every effort to keep as many of our communities together. It is my hope the census data will further prove to legislators from more affluent parts of the commonwealth that if significant investments like completing the Coalfields Expressway are not made the population loss of Southwest Virginia will become an even larger burden on the entire commonwealth.”

Tazewell County has joined other counties in the area in a lawsuit to count a part of the population that, if lost in the census, would adversely impact political clout and resources.

The lawsuit is trying to reverse a provision under the Virginia Redistricting Committee’s “Statutory Criteria” that requires “[p]ersons incarcerated in a federal, state, or local correctional facility” to be counted for redistricting purposes “in the locality of their address at the time of incarceration.”

“In other words, the Statutory Criteria demand that incarcerated persons be counted for redistricting persons somewhere other than the place where they are actually incarcerated,” the lawsuit says. “Virginia prisons are typically located in rural districts with greater Republican voting strength…”

Five state and federal correctional facilities are located in Tazewell, Buchanan and Russell counties.

A similar population loss story is on the West Virginia side, except for statewide numbers.

West Virginia’s population dropped from 1.85 million to 1.79 million, or 3.2 percent, the largest decline of any state.

That loss will mean losing a Congressional district.

Currently, there are three Congressional districts with Rep. Carol Miller representing the 3rd District, covering the southern counties.

In 2022, only two districts will cover the entire state.

Mercer County’s population was 62,264 in 2010, but fell to 59,664 in 2020, a drop of 5.6 percent.

McDowell County’s population dropped 20.3 percent, from 22,113 to 19,111.

Monroe County only saw a slight fall, from 13,502 to 12,376, a 1.7 percent drop.

The City of Bluefield saw a 7.7 percent population decline, from 10,447 in 2010 to 9,658 in 2020.

Princeton dropped from 6,432 to 5,872, a 7.3 percent decline.

All of these figures are preliminary estimates and Mercer County Commissioner Greg Puckett said the population loss may be greater.

“A loss of 8 percent or more is possible,” he said. “That is significant.”

It is important, he said, because the loss of a more regional Congressional representation may mean less attention to the southern counties.

“It doesn’t allow us the connectivity for our voice on a political spectrum,” he said.

The loss of population also impacts state resources, local revenue and jobs, and how the county invests in health care in all communities, he added, and it also affects how others view Mercer County and the state.

To Puckett, though, it is more a matter of looking to the future, not what happened in the past.

“One of the main goals is, we have to showcase what we have,” he said, and let people know this is a great place to live and work. “We have to focus on the positive.”

Puckett said one of those big positives is the location close to major highways.

“This is a great location, a hub, with easy access to interstates (and railroad),” he said, adding that many positive things are already happening, including new companies like Intuit and a new sanitation manufacturer in the former Blue Prince Plaza.

The Mercer County Economic Development Authority is doing a good job, he said, as well as the EDAs in Bluefield and the newest one in Princeton.

“We need to give people the confidence that we really are in a great place,” he said.

Del. Marty Gearheart, R-27th District-Mercer County, agrees with Puckett that the biggest regional concern is losing the Congressional seat and the influence that brings in Washington.

“It does make a difference,” he said.

As far as the redistricting issue is concerned, Gearheart is on the state Joint Committee on Redistricting and said the process will be a fair one.

“We will make certain that Mercer County is represented in the best possible way in the whole redistricting process,” he said.

Gearheart said redistricting is like working a jigsaw puzzle, trying to make sure each district’s population is as equal as possible.

That population number is calculated by dividing the state’s total population by 100 (the number of delegates).

Based on the new state population figure of 1.79 million, that would mean each House district should have a population of 17,900, plus or minus 5 percent, he said.

The districts often involve more than one county, he said, as continuous parts of another county’s population may be needed to reach that population.

Mercer County currently has three delegates, but a small part of the county in the Bramwell area is part of the 26th District which includes McDowell County.

That could change with the population drop in Mercer County.

But Gearheart said counties, cities and towns are held together in representation as much as possible.

Redistricting public meetings are now being held in both states, but the process was delayed by census results being received later than usual.

Virginia has seats up in the General Assembly this year and usually the redistricting process would have been complete before then.

However, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, current district lines will be used because the process cannot be completed in time for approval by the General Assembly.

West Virginia has until the deadline to file for the 2022 election to complete the process of approval by legislators.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com