Population decline in southern West Virginia is complicating an already challenging economic environment, especially in regard to development of broadband service – which businesses regard as essential infrastructure needed to be competitive in an increasingly global market.
And as government and regional economic leaders work to expand broadband and entice businesses to the southern counties, a recent study shows that West Virginias are leaving the coalfields in large numbers.
In a Thursday article on 25 American cities that are losing population, USA Today reported that five of the top 10 metro areas on the list were in West Virginia. Beckley's Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) – which encompasses Beckley, Oak Hill and parts of Raleigh and Fayette counties – was fifth on the list, with a 5.1 percent population loss between 2010 and 2017. According to the report, the Beckley MSA population fell from 124,959 to 118,250, a loss of 6,709 people. More than 4,500 of those Mountaineers, according to the report, moved out of state.
The USA Today report showed that the Beckley MSA was losing population at a slower rate than Charleston's metro area, which was third on the list with a 5.5 percent loss in population from 226,901 to 214,406 with nearly 10,000 residents leaving the state.
Joe Brouse, executive director of New River Gorge Economic Development Authority, said Friday that Charleston is the "bellwether" or trend-setter for southern West Virginia. When Charleston is losing population, the loss is indicative of a larger problem. Brouse sees the problems that population is causing as he seeks to expand and diversify the economy in four counties, including Raleigh.
One casualty is broadband service.
"A problem with why we don't have better broadband in so many areas is the market," he said. "For broadband providers, it's about making money.
"They have to have customers to do it."
Extending broadband into rural, sparsely populated areas of the state is cost prohibitive to providers.
Brouse said southern West Virginia does not have the population to entice private broadband investors to expand infrastructure in the region. On the flip side, poor internet connectivity and unpredictable WiFi dissuades businesses from coming to West Virginia.
"We have places where it works great, but there are too many places that don't have it," Brouse said. "I'm not going to say it's strictly the reason we don't get business.
"It's one aspect of many reasons why."
He added that limited sites for businesses, workforce participation rates and education are also challenges in the state.
Brouse said the lower population means that the state cannot rely on private business to expand broadband service to West Virginians.
"Even if we would get the money to build out the broadband, it's an ongoing service that has to be provided," he explained. "For it to be profitable to them, they've got to have the customers.
"We will have to take a fundamentally different approach to broadband."
Brouse said state lawmakers have made grants and loans available for broadband expansion.
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recently visited the region to test broadband service maps established by the Federal Communications Commission, as part of Manchin's challenge of the Mobility Fund Phase II map, which includes $4.53 billion in federal funding for construction of 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) service in areas of need.
Manchin told the FCC that the map does not accurately reflect the level of broadband need in West Virginia, and the FCC had granted Manchin a waiver in May to challenge the map.
Brouse said Manchin was correct in calling for a test of the FCC map. Broadband service in the southern part of the state is lacking, and that impacts health care, education and economic health of southern West Virginians, he said.
"There's going to have to be more of a federal response to it, if they're going to help our development," Brouse said. "The federal government has provided grant programs, and we're trying to take advantage of that.
"It's just going to be a long process."
Beckley Mayor Rob Rappold said he hopes that Beckley's growing reputation as a friendly and inclusive city will persuade West Virginia University Institute of Technology faculty and students to settle in the city.
Beckley has been home to a college since the 1930s, but, until recently, the coal industry was the economic stalwart that supported retail and restaurants. As demand for coal drops, Rappold and Council are taking specific steps to turn Beckley into a "cool college town," instead of just a coal town with a college.
With support from WVU Tech, Council amended the city's nondiscrimination ordinance in January to offer workplace and housing protections, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identification, a move that was popular with millennials and with WVU Tech administrators. City officials are seeking investors to open student-friendly businesses, including a laundromat, coffee shops and a bookstore that sells WVU Tech gear.
The city is also cultivating public-private partnerships and nurturing art and theater to revitalize the downtown.
Rappold said the city is on the right track to attracting residents instead of losing them.
"We feel like, as far as WVU Tech goes, we're on the right track," said Rappold. "We've heard many comment that Beckley is very open and welcoming, and it's inclusive, and they find it a progressive city.
"I think we've yet to see the fruits of that reputation we're building, but we're on the right track."
Councilman-at-Large Tim Berry, broker and owner of Tim Berry Real Estate, said commercial and residential real estate sales have not been impacted noticeably by the dwindling population.
Berry said most homes sold are between $100,000 to $150,000, as opposed to pricier houses, but that the local real estate market saw a good year last year and is expecting more steady activity this year, he said.
A recent study commissioned by Council showed that Beckley, like its metro region, is losing population. The report noted, however, that Beckley was in a unique position to reverse the trend, via capitalization on WVU Tech to develop downtown and local retail.
Berry pointed out that Beckley is a hub, due to its location, too.
"Our economy has always been a roller coaster," Berry said. "Right now, we're in some good times.
"We're starting to see some businesses come to the Beckley area. The key to getting people to come back is to offer more opportunuty.
"The best way, certainly, is to increase our job opportunities, and we're going to do that."