SUNDAY EDITION | Population dips in three Louisville-area counties in decade's first half

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – One in four Kentuckiana counties lost residents over the last five years, according to federal data that show outlying areas are the biggest winners and losers of regional population change.    

Scott and Washington counties in Indiana, and Trimble County in Kentucky, had fewer people last year than they did in 2010. The steepest drop was in Scott County, which lost nearly two percent of its population during a period capped by an HIV epidemic that made national headlines.

Gains in Shelby, Oldham and Bullitt counties in Kentucky helped the 12-county Louisville metropolitan area grow by more than three percent over that time. Jefferson County, home to nearly 60 percent of the metro area’s 1.3 million residents, grew by about the same rate. 

But recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates based on birth and death records and other public data, show Jefferson County is changing how it grows. More people are leaving for other parts of the U.S. than are moving in, while those from other countries are increasingly calling Louisville home.

“The really striking thing is the high level of international migration,” said Matt Ruther, director of the Kentucky State Data Center at the University of Louisville. “Jefferson County would probably be losing population if it wasn’t for these international migrants – or would be breaking even.”

In 2014 and 2015, Louisville had a net loss of 3,565 residents to other areas within the U.S., but gained 4,944 people who had been living abroad during the previous years, the data show. The Census Bureau doesn’t provide information on where people are moving to or coming from.

The metro area’s foreign-born population – nearly 62,000 – accounts for about five percent of all residents and has almost doubled since 2000, according to research Ruther published last year. Most were born in Mexico (nearly 22 percent), Cuba (11 percent) and India (7 percent).

In April, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer cited the Move Louisville long-term transportation plan as a way to add people and boost the economy. Among other things, it focuses on maintaining existing streets and sidewalks and recommending increased bus service in some areas.

In an interview, he said officials also are canvassing the region in an effort to fill job openings and emphasizing “second migration.”

“The immigrants are already in the country and then they’ll move here because of better quality of life and lower cost of living,” Fischer said. “With all the things we’ve got going on in the city right now, we need more population.”

To that end, the Metro Council passed a budget Thursday night that includes hiring a director of globalization in the city’s economic development department. Fischer proposed creating the job in the spending plan he submitted to the council.

According to documents provided to council members, the city's goal is to to help grow Louisville’s foreign-born population to 100,000 by 2025. Metro councilwoman Marilyn Parker, R-18th District, raised concerns about such an approach in a series of Tweets this week.

And other council members also questioned whether that strategy might stress already overburdened social and human services agencies, said Steve Haag, spokesman for the council’s GOP caucus.

“We’ve got to make sure before we start opening the door to everyone that we serve the people already here,” he said.

The Census data also reveal that in Louisville:

-Non-Hispanic whites made up nearly 71 percent of the population last year, down about 1 ½ percentage points since 2010.

-The share of those residents grew by about 1 percent during the first half of the decade, while blacks who don’t identify as Hispanic increased by about 7 percent.

-Louisville’s non-Hispanic blacks make up about 23 percent of the overall population.

-Among other minorities, Hispanics increased by about 15 percent, to 37,359, and now account for close to 5 percent of the overall population.

-And the Asian population grew the fastest – a 22 percent increase – and now makes up 2.7 percent of the city.

The overall growth of the Louisville region still lags behind the metro areas of Nashville, Indianapolis, Columbus and Lexington. Nashville, for instance, grew roughly three times faster than Louisville from 2010 to 2015.

Jefferson County’s overall growth has been “pretty stable,” said Ron Crouch, a former Kentucky state demographer.

But Crouch long has warned that gains from births exceeding deaths may slow, a result of an aging “Baby Boom” generation and declining birth rates. In fact, 51 of Kentucky’s 120 counties recorded more deaths than births from 2010 to 2015.

While none of those counties are in the Louisville area, Crouch predicts population growth in Jefferson County will rely less on natural increases in the years to come.

“The population getting older is going to be record numbers,” he said.

In Scott County, Ind., some 30 miles north of Louisville, there have been more deaths than births in recent years. At the same time, the county had a net loss of hundreds of people to other places, Census data show.

The county’s 2015 population -- 23,678 – was down about 2 percent from 2010. Some in Scott County say they believe the losses may be tied to the HIV outbreak identified in early 2015.

The county is under a state-imposed public health emergency until at least next May.

“I think we had a large influx go out when that crisis hit,” said Anita Walker, deputy director of the Scott County Economic Development Corp. “We were having a problem with housing at that point because people were leaving, leaving their homes and getting away.”

At the same time, she said the county’s reputation has been undeservedly tarnished by the outbreak, which is linked to intravenous drug use.

Scott County’s unemployment rate has fallen in recent years, according to data analyzed by the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. Walker said economic development officials cite the county’s workforce when trying to attract new companies.

Despite the overall population loss from 2010 to 2015, Walker said there’s reason to believe Scott County can bring in new people and encourage residents to stay. She points to opportunities such as welding and other training programs for local high school students and the opening of Samtec Inc.’s manufacturing plant in Scottsburg.

The growth at the River Ridge Commerce Center in eastern Clark County also could help, she said. The business park has boomed in recent years ahead of the soon-to-be-completed Ohio River Bridges Project.

“I believe we’re going to start seeing more residents here as a result of River Ridge because growth is going to have to come this way,” she said. “So as they fill that park up down there we believe that a lot of those folks will be living here.”

For the Jonas family, the decision to move their farm and goat-milk products company from Clark County to Scott County in 2012 was about location.

The farm not far from Interstate 65 was “perfect,” said Brett Jonas, 19, who works in the family business, “Goat Milk Stuff.”

The Jonases make soap, cheese, lip balm and other products using goat milk. But as they sought to expand, they wanted high-speed internet, proximity to a highway and easy access for tractor trailers, Brett Jonas said. 

“This was the first property we found that had all of those things, and it was only about 20 minutes from where we already were,” she said.

Trimble County was the only Kentucky county in the Louisville metro area to lose people during the first half of the decade. Census estimates show it declined by less than 1 percent over that time.

The smallest county in the region, with less than 8,800 people, Trimble increasingly has seen more people leave and not enough new births to grow the population.

There are several obstacles to attracting industry or luring new residents, including the lack of interstate access and a rail line, said Judge-Executive Jerry Powell. He also lamented the loss of young people, saying “some find jobs, but they don’t find jobs here in the county.”

And Powell said the lack of planning and zoning regulations also hinders the county from becoming a bedroom community of Louisville. Trimble officials, however, hope to create a comprehensive land-use plan within a year, a move Powell believes could make it easier for those wishing to buy property in the county.

“They want to know that their investment is going to be protected,” he said.

As a whole, rural parts of the U.S. lost population from 2010 to 2014, according to the most recent analysis from the federal Department of Agriculture.

But not everyone wants to live in populated areas, giving outlying counties a chance to attract new residents, said Uric Dufrene, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at Indiana University Southeast.

In counties that are losing people, officials need to “invest in the aspects that make it a nice place to live,” he said.

“They’ve got to attract folks from the outside to turn around the population projections,” Dufrene said. “Otherwise, how do you attract industry and companies that need to hire people when you’re faced with declining population?”

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