One of the important issues regarding the revision of the Jefferson County Comprehensive Plan has to do with growth. The Plan includes proposals to address how to accommodate future growth, or as some suggest, how to control it. One of the recurring themes I kept hearing at meetings is that we need to manage future growth. I would suggest that future growth is not assured, nor should we take it for granted.
At an “Envision 2035” meeting the county Planning Department provided an excellent presentation that contained important information that included a forecast sourced from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University. It estimated that by 2035 Jefferson County would have a population of 75,035, an increase from the current population of 53,498 that amounts to a compounded annual growth rate of just over 1.5 percent. That rate of growth would be about 40 percent greater than that of the United States at .9 percent.
Jefferson County experienced a surge in population growth of 26 percent during the previous decade. The WVU forecast calls for additional growth of 17 percent this decade, but that doesn’t appear to be holding up. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2011 the population of Jefferson County only grew by 724 and last year it only grew by 279. Wow. The growth rate has suddenly decelerated to well below the WVU forecast and there are factors that could cause it to go negative.
According to the Planning Department presentation, only 30.6 percent of the people who live in Jefferson County work here. That means that more than two thirds of the county work force leaves every day to go to work, with a significant percentage commuting long distances. As gasoline prices go up, more commuters are tempted to move closer to where they work. This is already happening across the country according to anecdotal reports in the media.
The economic outlook for Jefferson County, particularly with regard to job creation, is not very pretty. Surprisingly, the U.S. Census reports that in the decade that ended in 2010 — a decade in which Jefferson County experienced booming population growth — non-farm private employment in Jefferson County actually declined by 8.7 percent. In other words, economic growth has not kept pace with population growth.
Hollywood Casino is the No. 1 employer in the county. It took over the top spot from the Department of Education in 2011. Completing the top five are Shepherd University, American Public University and Royal Vendors. The rest of the top 10 includes Jefferson Memorial Hospital, Walmart, the National Park Service, the Jefferson County Commission and the Department of Agriculture. There are only four profit-making enterprises on the list and one of those is a university. If you remove education, health care and government, only three major private employers remain.
For those who are assuming robust economic growth for Jefferson County over the near to midterm, it may be necessary to rethink that assumption. The economy of Jefferson County is vulnerable because it is not diversified. The tourism industry, which includes the Hollywood Casino, accounts for more than 30 percent of all employment in the county. If that industry should falter due to changes in market conditions the impact on Jefferson County could be severe.
Further, our local economy is dependent on government spending. At his recent Jobs Summit town hall meeting, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey noted that 37 percent of the revenue for the state budget is supplied by the federal government. He questioned the ability of the federal government to be able to maintain that level of funding. He’s not the only one asking this question. In Texas, Representative James White introduced HB 568 back in February that would create a committee to review whether Texas could keep operating, as White put it, “if the Federal Government couldn’t meet its obligations.”
Coincidentally, it just so happens that the temporary suspension of the federal debt ceiling created by an act of Congress back in February expires this Saturday. The debt that is currently subject to that limit has exceeded it by $363.5 billion as of May 7. The federal fiscal crisis might soon be back. With a significant number of county residents employed by the federal government and with most of the top employers in the county dependent on the federal government either directly or indirectly for a significant portion of their revenues, there is real cause for concern.
We need to come to grips with the “new normal” with regard to growth. There are more vacant houses in Jefferson County than most folks realize and property values are at 2001 levels or beyond. Population growth is in danger of turning negative. Hopefully, we can adjust our thinking, but the first step toward economic recovery is to realize that we have a problem.
— Elliot Simon writes from