By Michael Buettner
Staff Writer

Posted Jul 15, 2017 at 10:46 AM
Updated Jul 15, 2017 at 10:46 AM

County populations expected to keep rising through 2040

PETERSBURG – The decades-long exodus of residents from Petersburg is expected to continue well into the future, according to a new report.

New projections from the the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service show the total population of the Tri-Cities region growing by about 110,000, or 23 percent, between now and 2040. The region’s population, estimated at 471,213 as of 2016, is expected to top the half-million mark by 2030 and reach a total of 581,063 in 2040, according to the new projections.

The bulk of that total, and most of the growth, is expected to be in Chesterfield County, already by far the largest locality in the region. Currently, about 71 percent of the region’s population lives in Chesterfield, a share that’s expected to climb to 75 percent by 2040 as the county’s population is expected to increase by another 30 percent over the next quarter-century.

Though not quite as robust, the other two counties in the region are both forecast to see double-digit increases over that period: in Dinwiddie County, a 20 percent increase to 34,080 from 28,363 today, and in Prince George County, a 16 percent rise to 42,640 from today’s 36,656.

Meanwhile, the three cities’ populations are expected to stay flat or decline – decline steeply, in one case.

The Cooper Center researchers project a modest 2.5 percent increase in Hopewell’s population from 22,901 in 2016 to 23,482 in 2040. Colonial Heights is expected to see a small decrease of 2.1 percent from 17,312 today to 16,955 in 2040.

And then there’s Petersburg, which is forecast to see a nearly 11 percent drop in population from today’s 32,018 to 28,613 by 2040 – extending a population decline that has already seen the city lose slightly more than 9,000 residents since the peak of 41,055 in 1980, a drop of 22 percent, or more than 1 in 5.

A population decline of that magnitude would likely add significantly to the problems Petersburg is already having making ends meet. However, the U.Va. researchers were quick to emphasize that their figures are projections of current trends, and things could change dramatically in the years ahead.

“Population projections are templates for the future so we can plan better, but these numbers are not set in stone as the future is inherently uncertain,” said Shonel Sen, research and policy analyst with the Demographics Research Group.

In particular, Sen said, “the steep population decline in Petersburg is not inevitable because its three neighboring counties, Prince George, Dinwiddie and Chesterfield, are all projected to grow. Many cities in Virginia have seen their population decline change to growth during the past decade, and so in the right circumstances, the future trendlines may evolve and be updated, and this will be reflected in our future round of projections.”

If Petersburg’s population does undergo a decline of the projected magnitude, it will likely present some major challenges for city planners.

For example, in 2016, according to Petersburg’s most recent Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, the city collected a total of $46.8 million in property taxes and other local taxes, or about $1,463 per resident. In 2040, based on the projected population, the city will have to collect $1,637 per resident, $174 more, just to maintain the same level of tax revenue.

In areas with a healthy housing market, new construction and increasing market values can add to the local government’s revenue without any increase in tax rates. In Chesterfield this year, for example, the total assessed value of the county’s taxable real estate amounted to $37.5 billion, up from $35.9 billion in 2016, a $1.5 billion increase. At Chesterfield’s current tax rate of 96 cents per $100 of assessed value, that amounts to a revenue increase of about $14.6 million. (The actual amount levied may be less, due to various exemptions and economic incentives.)

Rising market values can help increase revenue in cities, too, but new construction generally isn’t a factor for places like Colonial Heights and Hopewell that are essentially “built out” – that is, all of the land that’s suitable for homebuilding already has homes on it. That’s one reason why those cities aren’t expected to see much increase in population, too.

For Petersburg, the situation is different. The city does have relatively large tracts of undeveloped land, much of it on the 9 square miles of territory annexed from Prince George in 1971. But there’s little incentive for developers to add new housing, because Petersburg already has the highest non-seasonal housing vacancy rate in the state. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, 3,429 of Petersburg’s 16,464 housing units were vacant in 2015, the latest year for which estimates are available. That’s 21 percent, or more than 1 in 5.

While a large population decline can have major negative effects, rapid growth can bring challenges of its own. More people means more cars on local roads, more users connected to water and sewer systems, more calls to police, fire and emergency medical services, and more students in the schools.

Local governments have tried various ways to get growth to pay for itself. Several of the largest, fastest-growing counties in Northern Virginia impose impact fees on new housing construction. Locally, Chesterfield and Prince George collect cash “proffers” from developers – voluntary payments for each new housing unit built – to help offset the increased cost to the county of providing services and infrastructure for new residents. In the most recent fiscal year for which figures are available, 2015-16, Chesterfield collected $6.8 million in proffers and Prince George received $49,176.

However, a shrinking population doesn’t necessarily mean an automatic reduction in a locality’s costs for providing services.

In Petersburg, for instance, “Our projections show the school-age population declining in the city during the period” through 2040, said Hamilton Lombard, a researcher at the Cooper Center. “Petersburg will have to plan for having fewer students and possibly less state education funding as a result,” since much state education money is allocated on a per-student basis.

More generally, Lombard said, “It will be difficult to scale down city services, such as utilities or street maintenance, even though the population is declining, so finding a way to continue providing services efficiently will be another problem the city will have to deal with.”

• Michael Buettner may be reached at mbuettner@progress-index.com or 804-722-5155