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KANAWHA COUNTY EXODUS

Kanawha County lost twice as many taxpayers and their

 

dependents in 1999 than in 1994. Why is the population loss accelerating,

 

where are people going and what can be done to turn it around?

 

 

Imagine all the people in Charleston packing their belongings and

 

leaving Kanawha County, never to return. How many schools

 

would have to close? How many services would be cut for the people left

 

behind?

 

 

Kanawha County has lost more than 53,000 people since

 

1960, according to U.S. Census figures. That's about the number of

 

Charleston residents today.

 

 

The county's bleeding of people slowed in the early 1990s, but the flow

 

has grown into a hemorrhage in the last five years, according to migration

 

data from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. The county lost twice

 

as many people in 1999 than in 1994, the data show.

 

 

If the people who left Kanawha County were replaced by an

 

equal number of people coming in, the trend would go unnoticed. Instead,

 

6,789 more people have fled the county than have moved here between

 

1994 and 1999, according to the IRS data.

 

 

That's the same as if every resident of Nitro loaded up their U-Hauls

 

and took off. It's as if every Charleston Alley Cat fan sitting in Watt

 

Powell Park and every West Virginia Symphony patron in Charleston's

 

Municipal Auditorium disappeared from the county forever.

 

 

A constant drain

 

 

For this story, the Sunday Gazette-Mail conducted a computer-assisted

 

analysis on IRS migration data for Kanawha County from 1994

 

until 1999, the most recent year available.

 

 

The IRS keeps tabs on more than just how much money the government is

 

owed. Taxpayers tell the IRS which county they live in when they

 

fill out their tax return. By comparing the taxpayer's county of

 

residence from year to year, the IRS can tell us how many taxpayers and

 

their dependents moved into a county and how many people left. The

 

data is not perfect, but it captures an estimated 80 percent of all

 

migration.

 

 

In 1994, 7,231 people left Kanawha County and 6,442

 

people moved in. The county lost 798 people. In 1999, 7,659 people

 

left and 5,996 moved in. That year, the county's population drain doubled

 

to 1,663 people (see accompanying chart).

 

 

The departing taxpayers took with them more than $158 million in

 

taxable income. Kanawha County loses their purchasing power,

 

  • ales taxes and property taxes.
  •  

     

    Teachers, parents and students in Kanawha County schools

     

    know firsthand the pain that this population decline can cause. The school

     

  • ystem lost almost one-third of its students in the last 20 years. More
  •  

    than 40,000 students attended Kanawha County schools in

     

    1980, compared to only 28,000 today.

     

     

    The school board has closed school after school, citing declining

     

    enrollment. More than 200 Kanawha County school employees

     

    are slated to lose their jobs this summer.

     

     

    Everyone in Kanawha County, not just families with

     

    children, suffers when the population drops, according to Charleston Mayor

     

    Jay Goldman. When many people leave, the cost of sewers, water and other

     

  • ervices is spread out among fewer and fewer.
  •  

     

    "We either have to cut services or the people who remain have to pay

     

    more," Goldman said.

     

     

    Where are they going?

     

     

    People have been leaving West Virginia in great numbers since the

     

    1940s. Back then, the "Hillbilly Highway" ran north to factory towns such

     

    as Columbus, Cleveland and Detroit.

     

     

    Now, southern states like North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and

     

    Tennessee are the most popular destination for people who leave

     

    Kanawha County and never come back. Kanawha

     

    County had a net loss of almost 4,000 taxpayers and their

     

    dependents to southern states between 1993 and 1999. About 570 were lost

     

    to the Midwest - states like Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois.

     

     

    Many Kanawha taxpayers are making shorter moves to the suburban

     

    and rural areas west of the county. More than 2,600 Kanawha

     

    County taxpayers and their dependents moved to Putnam County

     

    in the last six years. Jackson, Lincoln, Cabell and Roane gained a total

     

    of more than 1,000 taxpayers.

     

     

    Kanawha County is gaining taxpayers and dependents from

     

    one area of the state: the southern coalfields. Boone, Logan, Fayette and

     

    Raleigh counties all contributed almost 1,000 taxpayers to the

     

    county.

     

     

    The median income of the people leaving the county is about $400

     

    a year higher than the income of those coming into the county -

     

    $19,590 for out-migrants compared to $19,174 for in-migrants.

     

     

    Moving in the right direction

     

     

    People are leaving Kanawha County for a variety of

     

    reasons. Some are looking for newer, cheaper housing and a more suburban

     

    lifestyle.

     

     

    But most people leave the state looking for work, Goldman said. The

     

  • tate has lost about 40 percent of its chemical manufacturing jobs since
  •  

    1980, he said. He easily names a dozen Kanawha Valley industrial

     

    plants that have closed or reduced jobs in the past 20 years: Owens

     

    Corning, Union Carbide, DuPont, etc.

     

     

    That industrial past is over, he said, but some area leaders haven't

     

    caught up with that reality. Goldman wants to focus on generating

     

    high-tech jobs in the county.

     

     

    "We still want to think we're this heavy industrial county,"

     

    Goldman said. "We need to change this macho image, get real and get moving

     

    in the right direction."

     

     

    A comprehensive study of the state's economy released last year by

     

    Market Street Services says state leaders have given little thought to

     

  • tructuring incentives to grow "new economy" jobs.
  •  

     

    "Instead, the orientation of West Virginia's system is still attempting

     

    to address the historic needs and desires of industries that no longer

     

    provide much return on the state's investment," the study said.

     

     

    Earlier studies of West Virginia's economic problems have sat on a

     

  • helf gathering dust, leading to more studies about the state's economic
  •  

    woes, the Market Street study concluded. West Virginia's leaders need to

     

    implement recommendations made in the past and "get the word out" about

     

    the state's positive aspects, the study said.

     

     

    For example, the Kanawha Valley has a large, untapped pool of

     

    unemployed and underemployed workers to draw from. Toyota officials made

     

    their Buffalo plant the first facility outside Japan to produce parts for

     

    their Lexus luxury line because of the high quality of their West Virginia

     

    work force.

     

     

    Bringing people back

     

     

    Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper disputes the

     

  • otion that the county is in any sort of decline. Although he
  •  

    doesn't argue the county is losing population, he says

     

    county leaders have expanded the infrastructure that keeps people

     

    here.

     

     

    "Build water and sewer, improve the educational system, provide

     

    affordable housing - those are the things that attract young families,"

     

    Carper said. "Its not rocket science."

     

     

    Since 1996, more than 2,700 county residents have hooked up to

     

    public water for the first time, according to the county planning

     

    office. About 1,900 more people are now on a public sewer system. Builders

     

    asked the county for permission to create 616 subdivision lots in

     

    2000, up from 213 in 1999 and the highest number in five years.

     

     

    Carper points to the upper Kanawha Valley as an area that is on

     

    the rebound. The new Riverside High School, expanded water and sewer and a

     

    four-lane U.S. 60 have led to a mini-boom in subdivision construction in

     

    places like Quincy and Shrewsbury, which have seen little development in

     

    more than a decade. However, part of the subdivision boom may also be

     

    attributed to buyouts of houses for an expansion project at the nearby

     

    Marmet locks.

     

     

    Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, has a different idea for bringing

     

    people back into Kanawha County, especially Charleston:

     

    Redevelop the city's old brick buildings and create a vibrant cultural and

     

  • ocial scene downtown. McCabe has developed several residential properties
  •  

    in downtown Charleston, including the newly completed Maple Terrace, new

     

    and renovated townhouses in Charleston's East End.

     

     

    "We have to make the city exciting, a destination, a place where people

     

    will want to live," McCabe said.

     

     

    Charleston and the rest of Kanawha County can't compete

     

    on price of land and new buildings with surrounding counties, he said.

     

    Instead, McCabe said leaders in the county should continue to

     

    renovate downtown, build the Clay Center for the Arts to the east and join

     

    the two together into a cultural and arts district that will attract

     

    visitors, residents and tax dollars.

     

     

    Goldman concedes that making the city exciting will help. But he said

     

    it won't be enough to stop the area's slow decline as long as it costs so

     

    much to build in Kanawha County.

     

     

    "I talked recently to someone who decided to build a home in Putnam

     

    County," he said. "He said it was worth the 30-minute drive to be

     

    able to build a larger house. You can have exciting things, but if people

     

    want a less expensive house, and not to get taxed to death ..."

     

     

    Part Two of "Valley on the Move," which will examine Putnam County's

     

    gain from Kanawha County's loss, will appear Monday in The

     

    Charleston Gazette.

     

     


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