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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