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Population drain quickens for Mecklenburg County / February 07, 2018
Nearly a decade since the last census count, Mecklenburg County’s population has fallen sharply — shrinking by 1,730 persons, according to official state estimates released at the end of January.

The decline represents a 4.5 percent dropoff since the 2010 U.S. Census counted 32,622 people living in Mecklenburg. The new estimate, by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, pegs the county’s 2017 population at 30,892 people.

While Mecklenburg is hardly alone among its neighbors in coping with population loss, the county’s attrition rate is steepest among adjoining Virginia counties — save for Brunswick, which experienced a 4.89 percent rate of decline. Mecklenburg’s population shrank by 4.47 percent.

Losses in rural areas of the state were measured virtually across the board by Cooper Center demographers, who also recorded a graying trend in most counties in Virginia. “The aging of rural Virginia’s population has caused the number of deaths to rise and births to decline,” said Hamilton Lombard, a Cooper Center demographer who prepared the estimates.

“A record 64 of Virginia’s 95 counties now have more deaths than births in 2017, making it harder for the population to grow, and is often causing population to decline,” he said.

Among Mecklenburg’s neighbors, Lunenburg County shed 4.09 percent of its population, Charlotte 2.28 percent, and Halifax 2.83 percent since the 2010 census.

While the trend points to daunting challenges in Mecklenburg’s future, County Administrator Wayne Carter said the dropoff may not ultimately be as great as predicted.

Carter noted that Mecklenburg was predicted to lose 10 percent of its population between the 2000 and the 2010 censuses, due to factory closings, NAFTA and other factors. That did not happen, Carter added, in part because people who owned second homes in the county retired here, making them permanent residents.

Prior to 2015, Mecklenburg’s population experienced sharp swings, rising from 32,622 people in 2010 to 32,936 in 2011, then falling in 2012 and 2013 to 31,980 before rebounding in 2014 to 32,052.

Since then the population numbers have been in sharp decline: down to 31,608 persons in 2015, 31,347 in 2016, and down again in 2017 to 30,892.

From 2010 to 2016, the median age of Mecklenburg County residents rose from 45.1 to 47.2.

The aging of the population has had a tangible impact on Mecklenburg County Public Schools. In 2010, the state Department of Education reported that 4,816 students in grades K-12 were enrolled in Mecklenburg County. For the current school year, the average daily enrollment is down to 4,338.

The Cooper Center data also suggest the population declines are occurring across racial and ethnic lines. However, research shows the overall makeup of the county is changing. The number of whites living Mecklenburg County has increased from 60.8 percent to 62.5 percent, while the share of black residents has fallen from 36.7 percent to 34.4 percent. The only other ethnic subgroup to show growth since 2010 is the category for two or more races, which comprises 1.8 percent of the local population, up from 1.4 percent in 2010. Persons of Asian and Hispanic descent remained constant, accounting for 1.3 percent.

The data also point to a familiar trend of urban areas powering Virginia’s growth: more than 60 percent of the state’s population gains since 2010 have been concentrated in Northern Virginia, with Prince William County surpassing Virginia Beach to become the state’s second most populous locality. Three of Virginia’s four largest localities are now located in Northern Virginia.

However, Virginia’s annual population growth rate of 5.9 percent is the slowest since the 1920s, according to the Cooper Center. The center’s population estimates are the state’s officials figures, and are derived from studying changes since 2010 in housing stock, school enrollment, births, deaths and driver’s licenses.

The data are used by state and local government agencies to establish funding allocations and revenue sharing among state and local governments. The importance of the population downturn is not lost on local officials.

“Everyone is hurt” when the population falls off, said Carter. “Funds for VDOT, DSS [Department of Social Services], Community Services and other agencies are all tied to population figures.”

The implications of a shrinking populace are especially far-reaching for the county’s school system, which sees fewer dollars flow in from the state when enrollment declines. In ten years Mecklenburg County has seen its student body fall by roughly 10 percent. Between 2008 and 2016, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols said Mecklenburg schools saw a corresponding state funding cut of more than $4 million.

Fear of losing even more state education dollars to school divisions in northern Virginia prompted rural schools in Southside and Southwest Virginia to band together to make the case for educational and funding priorities for rural school divisions.

The ongoing decline in student population has also been a factor looming over discussions of new school facilities for the county. Supervisors, for the most part, have pushed for consolidation of the middle and high schools in the face of shrinking funding and enrollment, while others, including members of the business community and the School Board, have argued against consolidation — citing a new state-of-the-art hospital and gleaming new school facilities as a magnet that would draw new residents to the area.

The loss in population comes despite notable successes by Mecklenburg in attracting two large data centers — Microsoft and Hewlett Packard — and other enterprises.

The three solar farms hoping to build in Chase City area over the next two years also come with no long-term promise of new residents. Once the 9-12 month construction phase concludes, the handful of workers needed at each site can come from the existing population: electricians, landscapers, general maintenance workers.

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