Several counties in Eastern Kentucky saw their population decrease on the 2020 Census, with Bell County taking the largest hit in the state.

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bell County officials saw their county’s population decrease by 16%.

Officials say that decrease happened mainly back in 2011, during the decline of the coal industry.

“When the coal market was just under attack, we knew we lost some, but we were surprised at the percentage, at the amount,” Bell County Judge-Executive Albey Brock said.

However, Middlesboro Mayor Rick Nelson says the county could have been better prepared.

“We knew one day coal would be gone and we, myself included, we did not do a good job of preparing for this day,” Nelson said. “I still think people are going to leave the rural areas because they have everywhere.”

Brock said that percentage would change drastically if more people participated in the census.

“There’s nothing we can do to stop what took place in 2011, 12, 13, 14, those were the times that we were losing population,” Brock said. “I feel like we’ve stabilized and are on the uptick form what our probably low was.”

Middlesboro Mayor Rick Nelson said it was an outcome they have been predicting for a while now, with Eastern Kentucky seeing its population decrease for many years.

“Of course, in our area it was slow because we had coal jobs,” Nelson said. “Now that the coal jobs are gone most of the young people have decided to move on and move closer to the bigger cities.”

That decrease consisting of mostly a younger generation, who Nelson said tend to leave to attend college, with many not returning after graduation day.

“Lot of them go to Eastern Kentucky, University of Kentucky, Morehead, and all those areas have shown population growth,” Nelson said. “I think the younger people want to get away from home and there’s more job opportunities, no question about it.”

While there are plans to combat this, Nelson said they plan to stick to fundamentals for the time being.

“We came into a pretty bad situation, and it comes down to finances, but I would like to see some restaurants downtown,” Nelson said. “We need an anchor downtown that’s going to bring a lot of folks in.”

Brock said they are trying to do whatever they can to increase the numbers.

“I mean, we’ve got projects that are ongoing right now that have taken several years to bring to fruition so, I’m optimistic,” Brock said.

One of which, is revitalizing their downtowns.

While controversial, Nelson said one way to do that is a restaurant tax. “London for example, they’re going to bring $3 million dollars in from the restaurant tax,” Nelson said. “Corbin will have a million and a half to $2 million. They’re putting all that money, or most of it, into their downtown.”

However despite the data, Brock said they are not worried.

“I think if you asked the average person on the street did, they feel 4,000 people leave, most would tell you no,” Brock said.

According to the census, the county with the next largest decrease was Owsley County at 14.8%, and third was Knott County at 12.8%.

Pineville Mayor Scott Madon pointed out that tourism is playing a big role in keeping the local economy afloat.

“The key to it is, not only do you want to get people here but what can you do to keep them here,” he said. “Jacob (Roan) and I get to occassionaly bear the amazing stories of people who come here for a concert or something and then they fall in love and move here.”

Madon said Pineville did feel the effects of losing polulation early in the 2010s but the city has been on the upswing in recent years.

“Now that we’ve got our town square fully occupied, and we;re getting ready to do a $6 million project, there’s a lot of enthusiasm and excitement,” he said. “I know from talking to the locals their business is good, there’s no doubt some have suffered but they’ve  held on through this pandemic and are doing fairly well.”

Recommended for you