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Over the past three years, 254,993 people moved out of Fairfax County. That’s as if everyone moved out of the Roanoke Valley – and then some. That’s a lot of U-Haul trucks.
Of those people moving out, 78 went to Pulaski County.
Not the Pulaski County in Southwest Virginia, the Pulaski County in Missouri, which may not be quite in the middle of nowhere, but is in the middle of Missouri.
The number moving to our Pulaski County in that time may be zero or close to it, according to migration data compiled by the Internal Revenue Service, which, as I always like to point out, knows where you live.
Now, there may be a very logical explanation for why 78 people from Fairfax County moved out to Pulaski County, Missouri: It’s home to Fort Leonard Wood, a major U.S. Army base. Given the government presence in Northern Virginia, that migration to Pulaski County, Missouri, makes perfectly good sense. What doesn’t make sense to me is how few people are moving from Fairfax County to our Pulaski County – or any of our other counties in Southwest and Southside.
Over the course of this week, I’ve been merrily digging into the latest IRS migration data. On Monday, I looked at how people are moving out of Northern Virginia. On Tuesday, I wrote about how that same data shows more people moving into most rural counties than are moving out. On Wednesday, I focused on the two biggest cities in this part of the state – Lynchburg and Roanoke – and how they’re seeing net out-migration (and where those people are moving to). On Thursday, I zeroed in on localities in Southwest and Southside that are seeing net in-migration and examined where those people are coming from. Here’s something I’ve touched on in some previous columns but want to examine in more depth today: With all the people moving out of Northern Virginia, why do so few choose to move to Southwest and Southside?
Let’s just focus on the most recent year available: 2020.
That year, 88,788 people moved out of Fairfax County. Of those:
73 moved to Franklin County
70 moved to Montgomery County
68 moved to Roanoke
60 moved to Roanoke County
58 moved to Bedford County
55 moved to Lynchburg
No other community in Southwest and Southside recorded more than nine newcomers from Fairfax County – the IRS data suppresses anything lower than 10 people for privacy purposes. So maybe there were some from Fairfax County who moved to other places but they don’t show up in the data. (That’s why I’m hedging on how many people moved to Pulaski County; there might be a few but since they don’t show up, we know the number is less than 10.)
Still, out of all those people moving out of Fairfax County, only 384 – 0.4% – or maybe a few more chose the Lynchburg-to-Roanoke-to-New River metro. The raw numbers may look good to those of us on the inbound side, but in the context of those moving out, they seem pretty small.
By contrast, 668 moved to San Diego, 611 moved to Los Angeles, 467 moved to Seattle … and even when we drop down to smaller places, we see that 99 moved to Greenville, South Carolina; 94 moved to Montgomery, Alabama; 75 moved to Augusta, Georgia … all these numbers being higher than any one of the localities in our part of the state.
This data can’t tell us why, but we can make good guesses.
First, the Northern Virginia economy is simply more connected to bigger metros around the country than it is to downstate Virginia.
Second, the Northern Virginia economy is very government-focused, so we see a lot of other state capitals show up on the Fairfax County migration list – so 182 people moved to Franklin County, Ohio, home of Columbus, more than twice the number moving to Franklin County, Virginia. And, of course, places with military bases. We don’t have a state capital in this part of Virginia, nor any military bases.
Third, when retirees move out of Fairfax County, they’re choosing to go much further south. Now, we don’t know for a fact that these are retirees, but we can make some educated guesses. Maybe the 222 people who moved to Pinellas County, Florida – home to St. Petersburg – were moving purely for work purposes but we also know that’s a big retirement center. Ditto for the 130 who moved to Collier County, Florida, home of Naples, another retirement destination. Likewise, 171 people moved to Horry County, South Carolina – home to Myrtle Beach. Fairfax County saw almost as many people move to just one county in Florida – Broward County – as to all of Southwest and Southside.
Northern Virginia’s migration patterns are unusual, to be sure, given its proximity to the nation’s capital, but they’re not unique. When we look at the rest of the urban crescent we see the same thing: When people move out of the Richmond area or Hampton Roads, they’re generally going to neighboring localities. When they move beyond that, they’re moving either to other major metros around the country or to coastal communities in the Southeast, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina down to Miami. Only a very small number move to Southwest and Southside.
Let’s look at the numbers:
In 2020, the IRS says 19,894 people moved out of Richmond. Of those, only 44 wound up in Roanoke and 32 went to Lynchburg. Those were the only localities in Southwest and Southside that had 10 or more from the state capital. Los Angeles (85), Philadelphia (81), Chicago (65), Denver (57) and Houston (47) were all more popular destinations – or at least more frequent ones.
Henrico County doesn’t look much different: 22,567 people moved out, but only 45 went to Lynchburg, 41 went to Roanoke and 28 went to Montgomery County. Phoenix (94), Houston (75), Seattle (71), Atlanta (67), Los Angeles (66), Chicago (60), Pittsburgh (58) and San Diego (54) all drew more – and that’s just a sampling. Palm Beach, Florida, attracted 63 – whether retirees or workers, we don’t know.
Chesterfield County looks much the same: 20,028 people moved out but only 32 went to Montgomery County and no other locality in Southwest or Southside was higher than nine people. Houston drew 58, San Antonio 54, Philadelphia 39, Los Angeles 35 and Dallas 34.
Now let’s look at Hampton Roads. Its out-migration patterns are surely skewed by such a large military presence, but we still see more migratory connections to other major metros (or retirement locales) than we do Southwest and Southside.
Virginia Beach had 34,896 people move out in 2020 – only 36 to Montgomery County and 30 to Roanoke, and nowhere else in this part of the state drawing more than nine. However, Memphis attracted 131, Houston 121, Fort Worth 114, Dallas 77 and so forth.
Norfolk had 24,002 people move out – but the number moving to any single locality in Southwest or Southside so small it doesn’t register on the IRS data (so therefore is less than 10).
I could go on but you get the idea. When people move out of the urban crescent, whether for jobs or retirement, they’re basically not moving here. Nor are many of our people moving there. When people move out of our localities, they’re going to North Carolina about as often as they’re going to other places in Virginia. Roanoke and Lynchburg both saw more people move to Charlotte than to Fairfax County. Those major metros across the country that draw people from the urban crescent simply don’t show up at all on our migration lists.
I draw four broad conclusions from all this.
- Are Southwest and Southside really that divorced from the national economy that these urban crescent communities are taking part in? Apparently so. To the extent that migration reflects career opportunities, our career opportunities are much more constrained. True, the relative populations in even our biggest localities mean we’re not going to see big numbers, so let’s look for a better comparison, population-wise. With a population of 112,395, Albemarle County isn’t that much bigger than Roanoke at 100,011 or Montgomery County at 99,721 or Roanoke County at 96,292. But it shows more migratory interaction with certain major metros – Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh and Seattle – than those three localities put together. That leads me to this:
- Old Dominion University’s annual State of the Commonwealth report, issued last December, warned that Virginia is in danger of “pulling apart” economically. It marshaled lots of charts and graphs on job growth and income growth to support that point. I’d look at this IRS migration data and make the case that Virginia has already pulled apart. Economically, culturally, politically, we’re already two different states. The urban crescent is interacting with a very different economy than the one we are. And that leads me to this …
- We have more in common with North Carolina than we do with Northern Virginia. This is not an original thought. Four years ago, two researchers – geographer Garrett Nelson at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and urban planner Alasdair Rae at the University of Sheffield in Great Britain – wrote a paper called “An Economic Geography of the United States.” It used commuting data to draw a map of how the American economy really works. The short version: They showed Virginia split four different ways. Northern Virginia was obviously part of a larger D.C.-Baltimore megaregion. From the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond to Hampton Roads, there was an Interstate 64-based economic megaregion. Then they said that the Roanoke Valley and Lynchburg and much of Southside were really aligned with parts of North Carolina, while far Southwest Virginia was in an economic laborshed that went into Tennessee. I wrote at the time for The Roanoke Times that this seemed to make the case for the proposed Interstate 73 – to better connect the Roanoke Valley with its natural economic cousins in North Carolina. I’m struck by how this IRS data supports the map that those two researchers drew. We’re not completely in North Carolina’s economic orbit – more of our people move to Richmond than to Raleigh, and vice versa – but North Carolina does exert some gravitational pull. It seems to me if we play this right we can flip it around: Danville is already attracting some businesses that have been priced out of the Research Triangle. Perhaps Roanoke, with its ambition to build a life sciences cluster around the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, could also take advantage of its relative proximity to the Research Triangle. Finally:
4. The low rates of migration from the urban crescent to Southwest and Southside are in some ways a problem. After all, most localities in this part of the state are trying to get more people to move in. Here’s a big source of people moving that’s relatively nearby – but those people are moving somewhere else. On the other hand, this is also an opportunity. I don’t begrudge anyone their beachfront retirement, but I have to wonder how many people in the urban crescent are opting for those coastal communities simply because they don’t know much about our part of the state – or have the wrong idea based on generations of stereotypes. How much of this is simply a marketing problem? We don’t need to get everyone in Fairfax County to move to Pulaski County instead of Palm Beach, Bedford County instead of Broward County, Danville instead of Dade County, Washington County instead of Wakulla County (yes, I can go on). We just need a few more than we’re getting now.
Coming next week: The exciting conclusion, where Daenerys Targaryen seizes the Iron Throne and reveals herself to be … wait, wrong conclusion. But before that, I do have an installment that looks at income. A few rural localities in Virginia are seeing a significant influx of affluent new residents. Can you guess which ones they are?