By Yann Ranaivo email@example.com
CHRISTIANSBURG — Montgomery County has surpassed Roanoke as the largest municipality west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, according to the newest population estimates from the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.
Montgomery County, which saw its population steadily grow throughout the past decade, had a population of 100,073 in 2019, up from 99,433 the year before, according to Weldon Cooper Center data released Monday.
Roanoke’s population fell from 100,033 to 99,348, according to the most recent data.
Roanoke had surpassed the 100,000 mark in 2018, the first time since the 1980s that the city reached a six-figure population.
Montgomery County — which had been projected to overtake Roanoke as Western Virginia’s largest municipality — had never crossed the 100,000 mark, according to Weldon Cooper Center data.
Montgomery County has benefited from the growth spurred by Virginia Tech.
“I think there’s two factors: one is students coming in. Their [Tech’s] enrollment is growing,” said Hamilton Lombard, a Weldon Cooper research and policy analyst. Lombard said the overenrollment of incoming students that occurred at Tech last fall was likely a contributor to Montgomery County’s recent growth.
Tech enrolled 1,004 freshmen above its goal of 6,600 for the current school year. The issue, which drew national headlines and concerns from local government officials, prompted the university to spend nearly $9 million to convert a Holiday Inn Express and 109 rooms at the Inn at Virginia Tech into student housing.
Montgomery County’s other population driver is the university itself, which provides jobs in the area, Lombard said. The county, he said, is also home to other employers that have attracted new families and retained them as residents.
“It’s one of the few localities in the area that still has more births than deaths,” he said.
In contrast, Roanoke County last year had 300 more deaths than births, Lombard said. Franklin County, which lost some population in 2019, had 183 more deaths than births, he said.
While Roanoke County did see its population increase from 93,672 to 93,805 last year, it has remained behind Montgomery in total population throughout the past decade.
Franklin County’s population was 55,782, down from 56,127 the previous year and 56,159 during the last U.S. Census count in 2010.
Salem’s population fell from 25,704 to 25,363 in 2019, according to the Weldon Cooper Center.
Lombard said recent job cuts at major employers appear to have impacted the Roanoke area. He pointed to last year’s shutdown of manufacturing operations at General Electric’s Salem plant and the ongoing workforce reductions at Norfolk Southern.
Norfolk Southern has initiated at least four rounds of layoffs among local employees during the past year. The most recent one was announced at the end of 2019, when the railway system said about 70 employees would be affected.
Norfolk Southern had previously furloughed 130 locomotive shop employees in September.
Montgomery County Board of Supervisors Chairman Steve Fijalkowski said he’s surprised by the latest numbers. The county’s growth helps its housing market and the supervisors have been receptive to dense developments, he said.
One of those developments was approved when the board passed a rezoning plan to build more than 400 single-family home and townhome-style units on approximately 107 acres of land near Prices Fork Road west of Blacksburg’s town limits.
“Since we do have a housing need in the county, it only makes sense,” Fijalkowski said. “Whenever you expand, especially in that area, which used to be rolling farmland, you hate to see that gobbled up into housing. But people have to have a place to live. There has to be a balance.”
Fijalkowski said he also doesn’t think growth unduly challenges the county government’s capacity to respond. “More people doesn’t necessarily cause more work, if it’s done properly. I do think it’s a good thing,” he said. “When you improve the tax base, it kind of spreads out the responsibility for everybody.”
Fijalkowski said the growth can lead to improvements of the county’s amenities. “It’s not a matter of you have to build a bigger park because you have more people, because not everybody goes to the park at the same time,” he said. “But we can have more parks. We can have more amenities people like.”
Those amenities, Fijalkowski said, are important, especially for those who work in the county’s growing technology sector.
“We have to supply a place for folks to live,” he said.
Yann Ranaivo covers local government and politics in the New River Valley, including Christiansburg, Blacksburg, Radford and Montgomery County.