Morgantown, Mon County see population growth despite statewide population decline

MORGANTOWN — While West Virginia lost population during the past decade, Morgantown and Monongalia County bucked that trend and grew.

According to a recent study released by the Pew Charitable Trust, West Virginia and Michigan were the only  states to see their populations shrink from 2007 to 2017. West Virginia’s shrinkage was the worst, at .1 percent; Michigan’s population dropped by .04 percent.

During the past year, eight states lost population. Michigan reversed its loss, gaining population by .29 percent from 2016 to 2017. West Virginia’s population fell by .7 percent during the past year, while Wyoming fared the worst, falling by .96 percent.

To look at city and county figures, we switch from the Pew study to U.S. Census Bureau data, which covers the period of April 1, 2010, through July 1, 2017. During that period, the state population fell by 2 percent, from 1,853,006 people to 1,815,817.

Morgantown was one of only two major cities in the state to grow during that period: from 28,343 people to 30,547, 7.8 percent growth. Martinsburg grew by 1.2 percent.

Beckley and Charleston saw the largest declines, 6.9 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively. Neighboring Fairmont and Clarksburg shrank by 1.3 percent and 5.6 percent, respectively.

During that period, Morgantown’s growth, combined with declines in Parkersburg and Wheeling, moved it from the fifth largest to third largest city, after Charleston and Huntington.

Expanding the view, Mon County grew by 9.2 percent during that period, from 96,189 people to 105,030. Berkeley County — Martinsburg is the county seat — grew by 10.3 percent, from 104,172 people to 114,920.

This particular data set doesn’t give numbers for smaller municipalities — Kingwood or Morgantown’s three neighbors — but it shows that Preston County grew by .5 percent, from 33,520 people to 33,679.

Kanawha lost 5.1 percent of its population but remains the largest county, with 182,292 people. Cabell County lost 1.4 percent and fell from third to fourth largest, after Berkeley and Mon, with 94,958 people.

Brian Lego, a research assistant professor in economic forecasting with WVU’s Bureau for Business and Economic Research, provided some perspective on the numbers.

Along with the usual factors associated with Morgantown’s and Mon’s prosperity — WVU and the healthcare and high-tech industries — Lego mentioned our relative youthfulness, with WVU playing a big role in that.

Much of the state skews older, he said, which means higher death rates and lower birth rates. “It’s kind of that double whammy.”

Lego said Preston’s prison population somewhat clouds the population analysis — as it does in other prison areas — but part of its growth can be attributed to it serving as a Morgantown metro area bedroom community.

Another factor, Lego said, can be seen by looking at a map of the state’s opioid-related deaths. West Virginia’s overdose death rate is worst in the nation, but Morgantown and Mon fare better than the rest of the state.

“It’s certainly had a tangible effect on the state’s population over the past several years,” he said of the opioid crisis.

While Fairmont and Marion County sit right in the middle of the prosperous I-79 high-tech corridor, Lego said, it has struggled economically from the long downturn in the coal industry. It also trends older, like the rest of the state. Where the population is migrating to is hard to determine.

At the bottom end of the corridor, Clarksburg has shrunk while neighbor Bridgeport has grown. Clarksburg fell by 5.6 percent, from 16,553 people to 15,621. Bridgeport grew by 6.3 percent, from 8,121 people to 8,635.

Oddly, while Morgantown prospers, the median income inside city limits is low compared to the state and other cities.

West Virginia’s median income is $42,644 (well below the national median of $55,322). Morgantown’s is $35,502. Charleston is tops, at $46,720, while Wheeling, Fairmont, Martinsburg, Beckley and Clarksburg all fare better than Morgantown.

Lego attributes this to Morgantown’s odd boundaries and its student population, which skews the numbers low.

A clearer picture comes by looking at greater Morgantown. A county comparison shows Mon earning above the state median, at $47,060. It tops all the major counties except Berkeley — which scores above the national median at $57,148.

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