According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, West Virginia's two biggest cities - Huntington and Charleston - have lost population each year since the 2010 census. In fact, only 32 of West Virginia's incorporated cities and towns saw their populations increase in the eight years between the 2010 census and 2018.
Huntington now has about 46,048 people, down from 49,153 at the beginning of the decade. Charleston had 51,272 in 2010 but was down to an estimated 47,215 last year.
No surprise there.
The same is happening in smaller communities in the state, including in Southern West Virginia.
The population of Logan, for example, has dropped about 15% from 2010 to 2018, from 1,775 to 1,511. Williamson also has lost a sizable portion of people in that same time, from 3,183 to 2,744, a decline of nearly 14 percent.
What's happening in West Virginia's cities reflects what's happening throughout the state. Previous estimates showed 50 of the state's 55 counties lost population since the 2010 census. More people are moving out than moving in, and more people are dying than being born.
At one time, both Huntington and Charleston struggled to stay above the 50,000 level in population. That carries some significance for federal grant money, but it's more important for self-image and desirability on the national level. Who wants to sink money into an area that its own people are abandoning?
Among other West Virginia cities, Beckley saw its population decline by almost 1,000 people to 17,164, Wheeling by about 1,700 to 26,771 and Parkersburg by about 1,800 to 29,675.
Hurricane is one of the few growing communities, having picked up about 250 people, reaching an estimated population of 6,506. Morgantown, one of the few booming (by West Virginia standards) areas of the Mountain State, saw its population grow by nearly 1,300 people to 30,955. At this rate, it could soon challenge Charleston and Huntington for the title of West Virginia's largest city.
Two things emerge from this. First, local officials must ensure every person living in the city is counted when the decennial census is conducted next year. That's every year-round resident, every college student who claims a local address and for voting privileges, and every homeless person. Truly, every person counts.
The second requires more strategic thinking and probably a commitment of resources. Our cities are losing the competition of where people choose to live. People may want to live in or near town, but they don't.
Fifty, 60 or 70 years ago, it was important for people to live near where they worked. Fewer families had cars or, for that matter, needed them.
But many of those jobs are gone now. As the local job markets contracted, industries and commercial enterprises located in unincorporated areas. Why not? Roads, water lines and sewer service were extended to those areas. Subdivisions gave people city-like neighborhoods without the price of living in town, although they had to give up some services in exchange.
But all of our state's regions need a strong, vibrant, attractive communities. Cities are the anchors of a region's economic and cultural life. When cities decay, the rot spreads.
So how does cities become attractive again?
As with many things, if there were a simple answer, the problem likely would have been solved by now. For the good of the cities and their regions, answers must be found.