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Rural Virginia Communities Face Graying Population

Rural areas across the United States face a common problem: their populations are aging. And that means they face a common challenge: attracting younger residents to keep their economies vibrant. Researchers at the University of Virginia looked at how several communities are responding.

Young people leave small communities for college and jobs, and older residents stay, frequently joined by retirees looking for the slower pace of a small town. Those trends create a dilemma for local leaders, according to Qian Cai, a population studies expert at U-VA.

"It is crucial," she says, "because, as we know, older populations need more health care. They need more social services and all those are paid by the taxpayer's dollar. And if you have a small number of workforce, the younger ones are moving out, your resources are limited but your demands are high."

Cai led a team that studied age and gender estimates in 134 localities in Virginia.

"After we finished the project, we looked at age distribution for each locality," she says. "We noticed that there was a difference between the urban and rural areas. Rural communities are aging faster."

Cai says there are two main reasons for this trend.

"Younger populations are moving out -- essentially, those with better education," she says. "And older populations tend to age in place. We also noticed reverse migration among those who are 65. Those who left the area when they were young, tend to move back for retirement."

That's been the case in rural Lancaster County, along the Chesapeake Bay, according to County Administrator William Pennell.

"Once our young people graduate from high school, they go to the metropolitan areas to get their education or to get jobs," he says. "They rarely come back."

Pennell says as the demographics of the county have changed, so has its economy. Instead of depending on fishing and farming, it now has a more service-oriented workforce.

"With more wealthy retirees moving to the area, purchasing land, building houses, that created work for carpenters, electricians, home builders and everything that's associated with that," he says.

Catering to retirees is also creating jobs in Highland County, which calls itself "the Switzerland of Virginia." Chamber of Commerce Director Carolyn Pohowsky says the unspoiled beauty of the Allegheny Mountains and the county's farms and woodlands are luring an increasing number of older Americans.

"What we're finding is because of the beauty of the county, the safety with low crime rates, the clean air and the outdoor activities, we are beginning to attract a lot of retirees to our community," she says. "As the number of retirees grows, so does the need for additional services like shopping opportunities. So I think that we'll see this kind of change. As urban communities become less desirable for aging populations, they will look to rural communities as a viable place to retire to."

More than a quarter of the population of Nelson County, in the foothills of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, is in the 55- to 64-year-old age range, according to the U-VA study. Nelson County's Director of Tourism and Economic Development, Maureen Corum, says the community is trying to combat the graying of its workforce by enticing young entrepreneurs to move in with their businesses.

"For example, we right now have 8 wineries and we should have 10 open in the next 2 years," Corum says. "That's an attractive market for younger people. We just opened the first farm brewery in the state of Virginia ere in Nelson County."

Corum says creating job opportunities to attract younger people will always be a challenge for rural areas… but advances in computer technologies are making it easier. The Internet, she says, gives young entrepreneurs the option of living in quiet, clean and safe rural areas while conducting business across the country or even around the world.