City’s estimated population falls for second consecutive year, thanks to the economy

By Andrew Jenner, publisher

One year’s slight population decline could be a blip. But two years in a row – as is now the case in Harrisonburg, according to the Weldon Cooper Center –  could point to a trend.

According to the center’s just-released 2019 population estimates for Virginia’s 132 counties and independent cities, Harrisonburg’s population on July 1, 2019, stood at 53,997. That’s 609 fewer residents that the 54,606 estimated to live in the city on July 1, 2018, and a drop of nearly 700 fewer over the past two years (although estimates are dated July 1, they include college students who live in the city during most of the year).

“I think a lot of it just have to do with where the economy’s at,” said Hamilton Lombard, a research and policy analyst in the Weldon Cooper Center’s Demographics Research Group.

In a college town like Harrisonburg, the effects of a relatively strong economy are felt in several ways. First, while JMU’s total enrollment has continued to grow somewhat, its growth rate has slowed considerably in recent years as compared to the aughts and first half of this decade. That, Lombard said, is true of almost any university in the country – a result both of slower growth in incoming class cohorts and the fact that college enrollment rates decline when the economy is strong.

A second pattern that could contribute to Harrisonburg’s stagnating population is the fact that families are more likely to move from starter homes in cities to larger houses in surrounding counties when the economy is doing well, Lombard said. According to IRS data, which is one basis for the Weldon Cooper Center’s population estimates, the net total of migration between the city and county between 2017 and 2018 (the most recent year available) was a loss of 600 city residents to the county.

“It’s a common pattern,” Lombard said.

In the first half of the decade, Harrisonbug’s population grew at an annual rate of 2.0 percent – significantly faster than Rockingham County’s 0.7 percent annual growth rate. Since 2015, however, Harrisonburg’s population has hardly grown, while growth in Rockingham County has accelerated.

Most other independent cities in the Valley, including Winchester, Staunton and Waynesboro also saw their population estimates fall from 2018 to 2019, while every county in the Valley except for Rockbridge and Clarke saw population growth.

An overall decline in the city’s population stands in contrast to continued growth projected for its public school enrollment – estimates also made by the Weldon Cooper Center. That’s partly because Harrisonburg is still experiencing “natural population growth” – more births than deaths – even though “out migration” – people moving away – has resulted in an overall population decline for the past two years, Lombard said.

Before Harrisonburg’s population drop over the past two years, the city had grown steadily for more than four decades.

 Although the city’s population has declined, Rockingham County continues to see population growth, according to the latest estimates. Together, the two localities form the Harrisonburg Metropolitan Statistical Area, which has grown by nearly 11,000 people since 2010. The growth rate of 8.8 percent over that period was fourth fastest of Virginia’s 11 metropolitan statistical areas.

Source for all data used in this article: University of Virginia Weldon Cooper Center, Demographics Research Group. (2020). Virginia Population Estimates. Retrieved from https://demographics.coopercenter.org/virginia-population-estimates


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