Population growth (or decline) in Virginia from 2010 to 2020. Map courtesy of Virginia Public Access Project.

When Virginia Tech played West Virginia in football earlier this season, the Mountaineers jumped out to a 27-7 lead midway through the third quarter. Then the Hokies staged a furious rally, scoring two late touchdowns to cut the score to 27-21. Then they stalled out and couldn’t push across a third go-ahead touchdown. The game goes into the books as a loss, because there’s no way in the standings to record a moral victory because when it comes to football, there are no moral victories, only actual ones.

And that, in a roundabout way, brings us to the 2020 census, where, unlike football, there might be some moral victories.

We’ve already heard the big hits from the 2020 census: The nation is growing more diverse, more southern, more southwestern. No surprises there. But there’s at least one story from the census that hasn’t been fully told, and that’s in Danville.

On the surface, it looks like another “bad” census for Danville – the city lost population for the third decade in a row. However, if we dig just a little bit deeper, we find a very different story. So let’s grab a shovel and start digging, shall we?

The 2020 census showed Danville’s population was down 465 people, or -1.08%. But here’s the thing: In the past, Danville has lost far more people, at a much faster rate. Danville may have still lost population during the decade but its population decline has slowed dramatically. That’s kind of a big deal.

Consider these numbers. Danville hit a population peak of 53,056 in 1990. Then during the ’90s – as textiles began failing – the city lost 4,645 people, a rate of -8.8%. During the first decade of the 2000s, when textiles finally went kaput, the population decline accelerated. The city lost 5,356 people, a rate of -11.1%.

The University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, the state’s official keeper of demographic data, had projected that Danville would keep losing people, at a rate of -6.9% by the time the 2020 census was taken. Instead, Danville almost broke even. It’s not that the projections were wrong – they were based on the data available at the time – but that the underlying facts changed. This is just like a football team that’s down by several touchdowns rallying to make it close in the fourth quarter. It may not be an official win, but in terms of team morale, it sure feels like one. When Danville declares itself “the comeback city,” that may seem more aspirational than actual to some, but there are some encouraging statistics to point to.

Another thing to keep in mind: In the past decade, Danville’s population hasn’t been driven by people moving away, it’s been driven by deaths outnumbering births. There are still people moving out, of course, but that’s no longer the biggest reason for the city’s population decline. It’s actuarial tables. What Danville really needs is what many communities across Southside and Southwest need: a younger population. If more young adults stayed home, rather than moving away, eventually nature would take its course and births would exceed deaths.

That raises a question: What does the 2020 census tell us about other localities? Yes, yes, we already know which ones are gaining or losing population but, as we’ve just seen with Danville, that’s not always the full story. Here’s the bigger question: Which ones are seeing population trends accelerate and which ones are seeing population trends slow down?

Here’s how Southwest and Southside localities break down.

  • Places where population growth is accelerating: We don’t have that many localities where the population is growing – they are almost entirely along U.S. 460 in the New River Valley-to-Roanoke Valley-to-Lynchburg metro areas. But we do have some. Bedford County is the fastest-growing of all. It added 8,326 people between 2000 and 2010 to post a population growth rate of 13.8%. From 2010 to 2020 it added 10,786 people for an even faster growth rate of 15.71%. Depending on how you feel about population growth, Bedford either benefits or suffers from being sandwiched between Lynchburg on the east and the Roanoke Valley on the west (plus Smith Mountain Lake on its southern side). Roanoke, Salem and Lexington also saw modest population growth during the first decade of the century – and then grew a little bit faster during the past decade. For Roanoke, that was enough to put the city back over the 100,000 population mark that it hadn’t seen since 1980.
  • Places where population growth is slowing. This is a bigger group that includes Montgomery County and Floyd County in the New River Valley, Roanoke County and Botetourt County in the Roanoke Valley, Rockbridge County in the Shenandoah Valley, and Lynchburg, Campbell County and Appomattox County in, well, obviously the Lynchburg area. Farther east, Amelia County also fits into this category. Most of these slowdowns were pretty dramatic. Montgomery saw 12.8% population growth fall to 5.65%, Botetourt saw 8.7% fall to 1.35%, Floyd went from just over 10% to just under 1.3%. Lynchburg from 15.8% to 4.55%, Campbell from 7.3% to 1.56%. Appomattox was the only exception, slowing from 9.25% to 7.6%, which still makes it the second-fastest population gainer in the region, behind only Bedford County. Now we come to a very different category.
  • Places where population growth turned into population loss. The two most dramatic examples are Franklin County and Prince Edward County. Between 2000 and 2010, the two counties posted growth rates of 18.8% and 18.5% respectively. This census shows a complete turnaround, with Franklin losing population at a rate of -3.3% and Prince Edward at -6.5%. Prince Edward had been gaining population ever since the 1960s; Franklin ever since the 1950s.

    Franklin’s sudden turnaround is both more mysterious and more explainable. For the past four decades, Franklin County had been one of the fastest-growing counties on this side of the state, regularly posting double-digit population growth while other localities were losing people. Probably the main reason was Smith Mountain Lake. Its population growth rates were fairly modest until that hydroelectric dam reached full pond in 1966. In the first full decade after that, Franklin County’s population growth exploded to 33.1% in the 1970s, then stayed at 10.7% in the 1980s, 19.6% in the 1990s and 18.8% in the first decade of the 21st century. Now, for the first time since 1950, Franklin County has lost population.

Why? Several things. The recession following the 2008 market collapse did no favors for real estate. But mostly those retirees who moved to the lake aged out, which is a rather polite euphemism. The Weldon Cooper Center shows that during the past decade, more people continued to move into Franklin County than moved out, just at a slower rate than before. But the county lost population because deaths far outnumbered births – and also outnumbered the number of people moving in. Franklin County needs the same thing Danville needs: a younger population.

Other localities in this population gainers-to-losers category, just not at the same scale: Amherst County, Bristol, Buckingham County, Buena Vista, Carroll County, Charlotte County, Craig County, Cumberland County, Dinwiddie County, Emporia, Galax, Giles County, Greensville County, Lee County, Mecklenburg County, Norton, Nottoway County, Pittsylvania County, Radford, Tazewell County, Washington County, Wise County and Wythe County. Just as our politics have become polarized along geographic lines, so, too, have some population trends. Once Southwest and Southside were more of a checkerboard of gainers and losers; now, once you get past the metro areas, they’re more consistently population losers, a demographic trend that perhaps our national leaders ought to be paying more attention to.

  • Places where population loss is slowing. Danville, as we’ve seen, fits into this category. So, too, do Bath County, Covington, Grayson County, Henry County and Martinsville. The latter two localities suffered the same economic blow that Danville did, the loss of textiles. Martinsville has been losing population ever since the 1970s, at rates of -7.7% in the 1980 census, -10.9% in 1990, -4.6% in 2000 and -10.3% in 2010. This census shows a population decline of just -2.43%, which suggests the worst is over for Martinsville. Grayson has also seen a remarkable slowdown. It’s lost population in six of the last eight headcounts, going back to 1950, which reflected an exodus during the World War II years. In 2010, the census showed Grayson’s population down -13.3%. Now it’s down just -1.29%. Furthermore, county administrator Bill Shepley says the county has seen a “tremendous” number of people in the past pandemic year who want to move into Grayson and work remotely. The county’s new pilot program for broadband will surely help that. No one should be surprised if Grayson soon becomes a population gainer. We have Patrick County, where the population decline is absolutely consistent over the past decades – -4.7% in each decade. It’s in a category all its own. But then we have:
  • Places where population losses have accelerated. This is not a happy list. Not surprisingly, many of the coalfield counties are on this list. Buchanan County was a double-digit population loser in the 2010 census with -10.6%; now it’s at -15.5%. Russell County has gone from -4.6% to -10.7%, Dickenson County from -2.9% to -11.2%, Scott County has gone from -0.4% to -6.9%. But many non-coal localities make the list, too. Smyth County has gone from -2% to -7.5%, Bland County from -0.7% to -8.1%. We don’t just see Southwest Virginia counties on this list, either. Lunenburg County in Southside has gone from -1.8% to -7.6%; Brunswick County has gone from -5.35% to -9%. Alleghany County has also seen a slight acceleration, from -5.6% to -6.3%, although that’s so close it may not count for our purposes here. Pulaski County has gone from -0.73% to -3.1%, despite the county’s efforts to grow population. Key among those efforts: a new middle school and the privately funded refurbishing of Calfee Park, home to the Pulaski’s Appalachian League baseball team, which led league attendance this summer. Those efforts may eventually come to fruition; it makes sense that at some point growth gets pushed out of Montgomery County into Pulaski County. That hasn’t happened yet, though.

I don’t want to belabor the point, but it’s worth looking more closely at Buchanan County, the fastest population loser in the state. That county hit a peak population of 37,989 in 1980, when oil embargoes led to a Democratic president to declare coal-mining a national priority in confronting an energy crisis that Jimmy Carter called the “moral equivalent of war.” Times change. Coal is no longer the nation’s top source of energy, and, in the absence of a different economy, the coalfields are depopulating.

Buchanan County’s population fell by -17.5% during the 1980s, by -13.9% during the 1990s, by -10.7% during the ‘aughts, and now -15.5% during the past decade. Percentages can be tricky, so how about the actual numbers: Buchanan lost 2,880 people during the first decade of the 2000s; it lost 3,743 during the past decade. There really seems no end in sight – and very little interest at the state or federal level in helping reverse these trends.

Buchanan County’s population is now down to 20,355, which means the county has lost 46% of its population since 1980. The Weldon Cooper Center projects that by 2045 the county’s population will be down to 12,821, one-third of its high. Is it really state or federal policy to depopulate the coalfields? That may not be the stated policy, but there certainly doesn’t seem to be a policy to try to reverse these trends. It would be nice if there were, but it would also be nice if there were unicorns and mermaids.

All these localities – the gainers, the losers, the ones in between – are at the mercy of national, even international, economic trends. But if they want to change any of these trends, they’ll have to do it on their own, without much help from Richmond or Washington.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.