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
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
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,
Teachers, parents and students in Kanawha County schools
know firsthand the pain that this population decline can cause. The school
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
"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
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
But most people leave the state looking for work, Goldman said. The
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
"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
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
Bringing people back
Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper disputes the
doesn't argue the county is losing population, he says
county leaders have expanded the infrastructure that keeps people
"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
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
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