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MAP TO PROSPERITY: Destiny by the numbers: Eastern, northern counties gaining economic, political power

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  • Map to Prosperity

    Map to Prosperity

    Wednesday, December 24 2014 4:16 PM EST2014-12-24 21:16:46 GMT
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.

If the map of West Virginia were to be drawn based on growth and demographics rather than latitude and longitude, the northern and eastern counties would grow and the central and southern counties would shrink.

If demographics truly is destiny, what does the future hold for West Virginia, and how will that affect decisions on highway construction, political influence and allocation of resources?

It's not just how many people you have, but who makes up that population in the region and how they trend in age, income, wealth and political power.

West Virginia can be divided in many ways — by history, by natural resources, by highways, by media markets and by favorite sports teams, among others. 

Here, The State Journal divided the state into four regions based mainly on their economic focus.

The eastern counties can be called the Quality of Life Corridor. It's where people from out of state, usually from the Washington, D.C., and Northern Virginia areas, come to live and commute to work or where they have a second, retirement home.

The northern counties can be considered to be the breakout counties of the state. Thanks to natural gas, natural gas liquids and government investment, they form the economic growth area of the state.

The southern counties are dominated by coal.

And the metro central counties form the area that has dominated the state economically. They still do, but their momentum has faded along with the heavy industry that brought them their original prosperity.

Quality of life corridor

For years, discussion of growth areas in West Virginia has started with the eastern counties.

Most of the talk centers on Berkeley and Jefferson counties. From 2000 to 2012, these two counties accounted for almost all of the net population growth in West Virginia. Increases and decreases in the other 53 counties pretty much balanced.

The Eastern Panhandle has benefited from the booming Washington, D.C., area and nearby counties of Northern Virginia. Migration numbers over the years have shown a constant movement of people among the Eastern Panhandle, Northern Virginia and Western Maryland.

Other counties along the Virginia border are places for second homes of affluent people of that state.

And the Quality of Life Corridor includes the community of Shepherdstown and communities in Greenbrier County. Both places can lay claim to being among the most art-conscious in the state.

Not only do the eastern counties lead the state in population growth, but the east is the only part of the state where public school enrollment is greater now than it was 12 years ago.

Another way the eastern counties differ from the rest of the state is in their residents' political preferences. The Democratic Party is weakest here and the Republican Party is strongest. While the GOP has yet to catch up with Democrats in party registration, Republicans are about 33.5 percent of registered voters — the party's strongest showing in the state. Democrats are slightly less than 41 percent of registrations, the party's weakest area.

Meanwhile, people in the Quality of Life Corridor are more likely to register as independent than elsewhere in West Virginia.

It's no secret that when the Legislature is redistricted every 10 years the top priority is protecting incumbents. Yet the Democrat-controlled Legislature has not stopped Republican strength in the east.

In the current session of the House of Delegates, the eastern counties are represented by 12 Republicans and six Democrats. The east is the only region with more Republicans than Democrats in the House.

One thing to remember about growth in the east is that while the growth is greater there than elsewhere in West Virginia, the region began with a smaller base from which to calculate. The eastern counties still have only about 17 percent of the state's residents and relatively few political leaders of statewide influence.

Shale country

About one-third of West Virginians live in the 21 counties that stand to gain as natural gas and natural gas liquids are extracted from the Marcellus Shale.

The northern counties have the lowest median age among the regions, but not by much. While the region has a spike in college-age residents, it also has its share of aging Baby Boomers. The median age in the northernmost counties in 2010 was 40. The coal counties' median age was 42. In the other regions and the state as a whole, the median age was about 41.

The corridor of Clarksburg, Fairmont and Morgantown has seen growth in the past few years, with part of that being balanced by decline in the Northern Panhandle. Based on estimates by the Census Bureau, Monongalia County recently passed Cabell County to become the third largest in the state in terms of population, after Kanawha and Berkeley.

The age distribution in the north differs from other regions. Because of West Virginia University and other colleges and universities, the distribution in the north shows a large number of people in their late teens and early 20s.

While the region overall has gained people since 2000, public school enrollment is down 8.1 percent since 2001-02 — the largest decline among the state's four regions.

One thing the numbers don't describe is a shift in political power that has gone on. It wasn't that long ago that the president of the state Senate and the speaker of the House of Delegates both were from coal country. Today, both hail from the shale region. Former Sen. Robert C. Byrd was from the south. When Byrd died, he was replaced by Joe Manchin, from the north.

The numbers also don't reflect some economic trends. Before multi-state bank consolidation, the largest banks based in West Virginia were mostly in the Metro Valley — Key Centurion and One Valley among them. As the industry consolidated, the largest banks in the Metro Valley were acquired by out-of-state companies. Today, many of the largest West Virginia-based banking companies — United, WesBanco and others — and the ones most active in merger and acquisition activities in the prosperous areas of Northern Virginia are based in the northern counties.

Metro valley

Although education levels in the Metro Valley exceed those of the state as a whole, the region was the only one to show a net loss in jobs from 2000 to 2012. Part of that can be attributed to losses in heavy industries in Jackson and Kanawha counties. Because of that, wage growth adjusted for inflation is the lowest among the four regions.

Politically, the Metro Valley is nearly a match for the state as a whole. About 51 percent of voters are registered as Democrats, compared with 52 percent statewide. Republicans are about 30 percent of registered voters, compared with 29 percent statewide.

Just as the House of Delegates is divided nearly 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans (actually 53-47 in favor of Democrats), the Metro Valley's delegation in the House is divided 14-13 in the Democrats' favor.

Coal country

About a quarter of West Virginians live in the 11-county region known historically and currently for coal mining.

This region leads the state in numbers that need changing. High on that list is education attainment. According to the Census Bureau, only 18 percent of coal country residents age 25 and older have an associate degree or higher education.

And while coal country has added jobs since 2000 while the Metro Valley has had a net loss, the region still had the largest population loss from 2000 to 2012 — about 2.3 percent.

While Kentucky officials talk about finding new industries for the coal-producing counties of their state, such talk is not heard nearly as much in Southern West Virginia.

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