The rural-urban divide in Virginia is expected to grow into more of a canyon in the next two decades, meaning the population of greater Martinsville is expected to continue a steep decline.
By 2040 Henry County, Martinsville and Patrick County will have nearly 20,000 fewer residents – about the same as the population of Patrick County in the 2010 census – even as Virginia’s overall population is projected to increase by about 1.9 million.
Martinsville’s population is expected to decline by more than a quarter from the last census in 2010 to 2040, with projections reaching about 27.4%, based on data from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s Demographics Group at the University of Virginia.
Weldon Cooper says that in Henry County that decline may reach about 22.3% and in Patrick County about 17.4%.
Virginia’s projected increase is about 23.4%.
The growth across Virginia is far from uniform, with a significant rural-urban divide becoming more evident as time progresses, according to Weldon Cooper’s analysis. Northern Virginia continues to dominate, with a projected population of more than 3 million people by 2020, and Richmond and Hampton Roads areas each are projected to have more than 1.5 million residents.
In contrast, many rural areas in Virginia are declining in population. About 70% of the state’s residents live in the three largest metropolitan areas and only 12% in non-metro areas. And that’s expected to grow by 2040.
“Every rural community in America is experiencing population retraction,” Henry County Deputy Administrator Dale Wagoner wrote in an email. “There are many factors that contribute to the decline, but our continued focus on economic development will be the primary factor to reverse this trend.”
Shonel Sen, research and policy analyst/state demographer for the Weldon Cooper Center, in an email cited several factors that contribute to the projected decline, including demographics.
“The age distribution in the region has changed over time, first from out-migration in the past, and now from fewer births in the current residents as the population ages,” Sen wrote. “The region has a distinctly older age profile when compared to Virginia overall.”
Henry County Supervisor Debra Buchanan said she doesn’t think Henry County’s population decline is any different than most small-town communities across this country. She cited the major job losses in the county because of U.S. trade agreements.
Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson said that Weldon Cooper “does a magnitude of projections. Could be based on the ages of our population and their estimations of how many young adults will remain/return to the area.
“Our city is seeing growth in home sales, with people moving into the community, and we hope that continues.”
Martinsville City Manager Leon Towarnicki agreed that the migration issues affects most other localities in south, Southside and southwest Virginia.
“Reasons – I can only speculate that younger people, high school graduates, college graduates, young professionals are attracted to high-density population/metro areas with all the associated amenities, job availability, housing options, arts and cultural opportunities, etc.,” Towarnicki wrote in an email.
“As population declines in Martinsville, the tax base declines, housing and housing values are impacted, employment may be impacted due to fewer workers, sales and meals taxes may be impacted, all of which will impact local government revenue and expenditures.”
Towarnicki said it’s important to provide a reason to either stay or come here, and that recruiting industries and businesses and promoting quality of life, affordable cost of living, close proximity to other population centers and educational opportunities is essential.
“I’m not getting too concerned about the long-term population projections at this point since much can happen to directly impact those projections, but it’s certainly something that needs to be followed,” he said.
Rickie Fulcher, chairman of the Patrick County Board of Supervisors, wrote in an email the population declines are a regional problem affecting Patrick and Henry counties and Martinsville.
“Opportunities for growth are becoming more and more limited in our rural areas of Virginia,” he said. He cited the need to provide local infrastructure to promote economic growth, which “entails items such as broadband capability and access, road accessibility and adequate workforce to meet future demand.” Addressing those issues will take local, regional and state efforts, he said.
Patrick County is working to develop and expand the existing broadband opportunities, and funding has been secured to start construction to four-lane U.S. 58 up the mountain toward Vesta and Meadows of Dan.
“Once this section of highway is completed and the additional areas between Martinsville and Hillsville to I-77, it will have a major impact on the ability to move goods and provide services for our area and open up a modern route of safe transportation.”
If the population trend is not reversed, he said, “It will affect the ability to promote the county, it will affect our educational system, and it will affect the tax base which drives the ability to better our circumstance.”
Said Wagoner: “Our quality-of-life initiatives, our quality education opportunities, and our efforts to recruit above-average wage employers in advanced manufacturing sectors will help make us the community of choice.”
He noted the county has invested significantly in the Patriot Centre Industrial Park and Commonwealth Crossing Business Centre to make it easier for a business to locate here.
“Our taxes are low and the cost of doing business here is low,” he said. “For the past several months, our unemployment rates and employment numbers are trending in a positive direction.”
Buchanan and Henry County Supervisor Ryan Zehr praised the local economic development efforts and local education offered, and Zehr praised promotional videos that highlight appealing things in Henry County, compared with the hustle and bustle of the city.
“I think as long as we continue to focus on education, industry and law enforcement and public safety, we will continue to see a stable population,” Zehr said.
Said Buchanan: “Hopefully within the next 20 years, Henry County’s population numbers will be much better than Weldon Cooper’s projection.”
Paul Collins is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. Contact him at 276-638-8801, ext. 236.