Charleston falls below 50,000 residents for first time since 1920

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail file photo
A view of Interstate 64 and the Charleston skyline, as seen from the runway at Yeager Airport in 2015.

West Virginia no longer has a city with more than 50,000 residents.

U.S. Census 2015 estimates released Thursday show Charleston dipped below the threshold last year. The state’s largest city had an estimated population of 49,736, down 590 residents from the year before.

It marks the first time that Charleston was below 50,000 in population since the 1920 Census, when it had 39,608 people. The city’s residents shot up to more than 60,000 in 1930.

Charleston’s population was at an all-time high, at more than 85,000, in the 1960 Census.

Mayor Danny Jones said Thursday that many cities around the Mountain State — not just Charleston — are losing people.

“There’s no question we’re losing people . . . for pretty obvious reasons,” he said.

Despite the continuing slump, “we’re going to continue to keep Charleston stable, financially and safety-wise, and deal with the numbers we have of the people who live here.”

Jones also noted that the U.S. Census estimates are not an “official count.”

City Manager David Molgaard said the fact that the city has the lowest population in nearly a century isn’t “anything to overreact about.”

Molgaard said much of Charleston’s residential growth in past decades stemmed from a thriving industrial economy, and by annexing surrounding land into the city.

“We know we have an aging and shrinking population,” Molgaard said. “From the city’s standpoint, we’ve got very [few] tools to attract businesses.”

That’s why Charleston officials are intent on making the city more attractive to younger generations as a place to put down roots.

One way to do that, Molgaard said, is through capital projects, such as the Charleston Civic Center renovation, as well as placing an emphasis on culture and the arts and holding meetings and conventions that draw in visitors.

“It doesn’t help that the foundations of the state economy tend to be going in the opposite direction than we’d like, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable,” Molgaard said.

In the meantime, the capital city will continue working toward facilitating new housing options near downtown and implementing goals laid out in the Imagine Charleston Comprehensive Plan.

As for the continuing population loss, “we’re gonna have to ride it out, and realize it’s not always a bad thing to downsize, if it means you create a better quality of life,” Molgaard said.

Huntington remains West Virginia’s second-largest city, at 48,638, down 140 residents since 2014. Parkersburg, the third-largest city, lost just 63 people, for a population of 30,991. Morgantown, the fourth-largest city, gained 366 residents, for a total of 30,708.

Several of West Virginia’s other larger cities lost a small number of residents, including Wheeling, Weirton, Fairmont, Clarksburg, Beckley and Bluefield.

Putnam County’s largest cities, Hurricane and Winfield, gained 86 and 17 residents, respectively, since 2014.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Reach Elaina Sauber at elaina.sauber@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-3051 or follow @ElainaSauber on Twitter.

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