State’s four biggest population losers by percentage were in this region

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Southwest Virginia’s population decline was no secret since estimates started coming out in 2011. Now the numbers are official, and the nine-county News Channel 11 viewing area has lost more than 27,000 people since 2010.

The county and city-level figures released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau show an 8.9% population decline across the region. That’s nearly a mirror opposite result from the Commonwealth of Virginia, which added people at a steady clip to grow by 7.9% to 8.6 million.

United Way of Southwest Virginia CEO Travis Staton said the numbers are no surprise, and that for several years regional leaders have been developing and deploying strategies to reverse the trend.

Southwest Virginia experienced heavy population loss over the past decade, recently released 2020 census results show.

“This is a challenging situation and it’s not going to be solved really with quick fixes,” Staton told News Channel 11 Friday.

The region — Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wise counties along with Bristol and Norton — had 313,069 people at the 2010 census. That was a slight increase of 0.7% over 2000’s figure of 310,849.

Thursday’s numbers showed a decline of 27,680 to a population of 285,209. Buchanan, Lee, Wise and Dickenson counties had the four largest population declines by percentage of any of the state’s 133 counties and cities.

Russell and Tazewell counties also had double digit losses and were sixth and eighth-worst in the state. None of the nine counties or two cities gained population during the decade.

“We know that the problem has been in the making for quite some time,” Staton said.

He said employers and others in the private sector have collaborated with non-profits like United Way to work toward the most important thing that can reverse the trend — a healthy, skilled workforce.

Travis Staton

“I think the importance of this is really knowing that we’re working within our organization and within a region to address and try to work to solve this challenge,” Staton said.

He said employers are engaged and at the table “and really looking to increase and expand those relationships between the worlds of learning and worlds of work.”

Staton said Southwest Virginia has “great employers” that are committed to staying in the region and growing when possible. He said employers need a talent pipeline of people qualified for the jobs on offer, and one that’s growing, not shrinking.

“That’s where United Way comes into play is working with our local school systems (and), community partners to make sure that we’re continuing to enhance and grow that talent pipeline so that our employers can have a good workforce for today and in the years to come.”

Those efforts include United Way’s “Ignite” youth workforce development program that has received national attention and pairs high school students with real-world employer internships.

The region faces the same needs other rural ones do – a shifting landscape of work, aging populations and the threat, or reality, of population decline.

But sectors utilizing artificial intelligence and computer science can be filled by Southwest Virginians.

The United Way, schools and other non-profits are working to develop what Staton called a “cradle to career continuum.” If it works, it will produce healthy, well-educated young people who are prepared to fill jobs in the tech, computer and other industries — and who are interested in staying in the area.

“Part of our efforts are looking at those new technologies, those new advancements … and really looking at how people in rural communities could even work for Amazon potentially remotely,” Staton said. “But they’ve got to have those skill sets and those talents and abilities to be able to do that.”

Declining school enrollment delivers a Catch 22 to rural areas. If a school system of 1,000 loses 100 students, it also loses about $1.2 million of state funding.

“But the school still has to work and operate even without that,” Staton said.

United Way helps fill that gap with programs such as “Major Clarity” — a career planning and exploration software available to more than 30,000 students across the region. The state requires seventh graders to complete a career plan but the United Way website says they often “have no idea what careers are available or what skills they need to have to be successful in the workforce.”

Staton said the region has had a good relationship with state government over the past several years, including the departments of education and labor/workforce.

“They’ve been very much part of this conversation in helping us to engage our community, to learn what resources are available at the state level that can complement this work and also have been open to learning and trying new things.”

He said lawmakers and state government understand the urban/rural divide in Virginia – not just Southwest Virginia. He said sometimes what works in urban areas doesn’t apply or isn’t as easy in rural areas due to transportation or other geographic barriers.

The players are listening to each other, Staton said.

“That’s a crucial piece – before you get to any real solution you’ve got to be able to hear and learn from one another, be able to collaborate and work together and I think they’re listening, they’re collaborating, they are trying to work with us.”

But the numbers are stark. Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Scott and Smyth counties all have lost population for two straight decades. Buchanan is down 24.5% since 2000.

Every county but one saw its population drop by at least 6.8% from 2010 to 2020. Washington County’s total was off 1.7%, with Bristol down 3.5%.

Staton said leaders are doing what’s in their control.

Staton called Southwest Virginia’s quality of life “phenomenal” and said that can help attract people to move there – or never leave.

He also said the region’s traditionally filled with talented, hard-working people. “We don’t ask for a lot of handouts and a lot of things just to help us limp along. We’re innovative. We’re creative, we’re problem solvers – that’s crucial.”

Those attributes give him hope that remote work opportunities can mushroom as people continue to leave larger cities — as long as efforts to develop a healthier, higher-skilled population bear fruit.

“This is the way out,” he said. “The way to really fix some of these issues and challenges is go up upstream and really invest in tomorrow and think ahead, and I think Richmond’s there with us, we’ve been working well together.”