Developers want to build a 600-acre mixed-use project in Pittsylvania County. As envisioned, it would include single-family homes, townhouses, apartments and a senior independent and assisted-living campus, as well as a hotel, a daycare center, a community center and a retail shopping center. Conceptual design layout by Dewberry.

For more on Virginia’s population trends, see our previous coverage here.

Pittsylvania County, like many rural counties, has seen its population decline.

That decline hasn’t been in a straight line — some decades it’s gone up — but over the past 70 years, the county’s population has fallen from a high of 66,096 in 1950 to 60,501 in the 2020 census. The population is probably smaller now. Census estimates released earlier this year show that from 2020 to 2022, Pittsylvania lost 1,135 people, which would put the population at 59,366.

So why in the world then, you might ask, is a developer planning to build a 1,900-unit housing complex in a county that’s losing population? (See Grace Mamon’s story on the project.)

Well, for one thing, the demand for housing in Pittsylvania County — and Danville — is soaring, which raises another question: Why are two localities losing population seeing a demand for housing? 

Shouldn’t communities that have experienced decades of population loss have lots of homes available?

Not really.

Consider a house that at one time was home to a family of four. Now the two kids have grown up and moved away. And one of the parents has passed on. That means where once we had four people, we now have just one. That’s a population loss of three — 75%, if you want to look at it that way — but the house is still occupied.

If a couple moved into town, they’d need a place to live, but it won’t be that house. 

That’s how even a community that’s losing population can still have a housing crisis.

And even if that new couple built a house, that means the total population in this scenario is three — still one-quarter below the four that it once was.

So, yes, a county can see new housing developments spring up and still lose population. 

Now consider the unique situation of Danville and Pittsylvania County, both of which have been losing population but which are also actively prepping for population growth. That may seem contradictory but the planning is based on realistic math. The temporary Caesars casino has opened in Danville, with the permanent facility set for 2024. That’s already generated a demand for housing (just as the temporary casino in Bristol has). And then there’s the prospect of a major employer landing in the 3,528-acre Southern Virginia Megasite in Pittsylvania County. We know the size of some of the companies that almost located there — the Ford electric vehicle battery plant that Gov. Glenn Youngkin nixed would have been 2,500 jobs, the Hyundai electric vehicle battery plant that went to Georgia would have been 8,100 jobs.

Where would those workers have come from? That’s a legitimate question about the region’s laborshed — central Michigan and Savannah have more workers available. One answer is that people would be willing to move to Pittsylvania for those jobs, but that raises this question: Where would they live?

Framed that way, the shortage of housing is as much an impediment to economic growth as the lack of various infrastructure. The developers behind Southside Investing seem to be getting ahead of the proverbial curve here. Their 614-acre site in the Tunstall area of the county, just 9 miles from the megasite, doesn’t seem accidental. If a big employer does come to the megasite, this development seems well positioned to profit. Meanwhile, the development’s presence could also make it easier to attract such an employer by assuring a company that the county is prepared to handle the population growth that would come with that employer’s arrival. 

Put another way, no company would want to locate at the megasite if it’s not convinced it could find enough workers — and concern that there’s not housing for prospective workers who want to move to the county could well be an obstacle. This development would seem to alleviate those concerns.

Another way to look at this: If you’re in favor of a major employer at the megasite, that implicitly involves support for more housing in Pittsylvania County. For those who might be against this development, the question then becomes: If not here, then where? If someone wants the jobs that would come to the megasite, you have to be prepared to deal with the housing demand, because there’s already demand for more housing even without something at the megasite. If you’re not keen on that much housing development, then that raises questions about whether there should be any development at the megasite, which then raises the question of where job growth can realistically come from.

I’ll let those in Pittsylvania debate these issues if they wish. I don’t live there, so I’m hardly the one to say what should go where. Instead, I will focus on the math, and what this development might mean for the county’s population trends.

If there’s one person in each of these 1,900 units, that’s obviously 1,900 extra people in Pittsylvania County. That would more than make up the decline over the past two years. If we figure two people in each of these units, that’s 3,800 new people. If we could magically make that happen today, that would return Pennsylvania’s population to 63,166, just slightly under the county’s population in 2010. In other words, if that development existed today, and was filled up with two people in each unit, it would reverse more than a dozen years of population decline in Pittsylvania County.

Of course, that development doesn’t exist today and Southside Investing says it may take a decade or more for the project to be built out. Over that time the county’s population will be changing no matter what, so it’s hard to know what the county’s population would be a decade from now without this development. These are moving targets.

However, it might be useful to look at how Pittsylvania County is currently losing population. It’s primarily because the county’s population is aging — and dying. Of the 1,135-person decline the county has had over the past two years, 70% of that drop is because deaths have outnumbered births, and only 30% because more people are moving out than moving in. (Deaths outnumbered births by 810, net out-migration was 325.)

We can’t do anything about deaths in an aging population, other than try to delay them as best we can. The best way to increase births is to have a younger population. If those mythical 3,800 new people in this development were all young adults and if they all had children, that population could become 5,700 (at one child apiece) or 7,600 (at two children apiece). Even that lower number of 5,700 would nearly make up seven decades of population decline in Pittsylvania County — the 6,730-person drop from the county’s historic high in 1950 to the latest census estimates for 2022. Now, in the real world, it’s unlikely that every household in this new development produces children, although some might produce more. In any case, the point here is to illustrate the potential impact of this development. This is something that could have a profound impact on the county’s population trends.

So far we’ve just looked at the births-vs.-deaths side of the equation. Now let’s look at migration — people moving in or people moving out. As noted earlier, Pittsylvania’s deficit over the past two years has been 325. Even with one person per unit, 1,900 occupied units of housing would easily put Pittsylvania into the plus side on migration. At two people per unit, well, I’ll let you do that math.

As I’ve reported before, many rural counties in Virginia have had more people moving in than moving out — particularly during the pandemic years — but they’re still losing population because deaths have outnumbered births. Even if nothing changed in Pittsylvania on the births and deaths side of the ledger, here’s an opportunity to turn that net out-migration into net in-migration. Pittsylvania isn’t far from doing that anyway. Separate data from the Internal Revenue Service shows that for 11 of the 16 years leading up to 2020, Pittsylvania had more people moving in than moving out. The margins are typically small but they’re still on the moving-in side. The moving-out numbers for the past two years may be nothing more than a statistical blip. 

The point is that Pittsylvania County is in a very different shape than some counties that post year after year after year of net out-migration. If new housing filled up — and county Supervisor Vic Ingram tells Cardinal that demand in Pittsylvania has been “unreal” — then the only drag on the county’s population is going to be death, and an influx of younger residents intent on having children could help bring down that deaths-over-births imbalance.

Demographically speaking, this is a big deal.

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