Pendleton County works to attract younger residents - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Pendleton County works to attract younger residents

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Pendleton County officials are addressing an all-too-familiar problem for many counties in the Mountain State — a decreasing and aging population. 

The challenge is marketing the county to a younger audience and retaining its younger residents. 

According to census.gov, the county's population in 2012 was 7,566 compared to 7,695 in 2010. According to the data, in 2011, 22.5 percent were 65 years old or older. 

"We're actually one of the smaller counties," said Janet Burgoyne, executive director of the Pendleton County Chamber of Commerce. "About 40 percent of Pendleton County is forest. The population concentration is not the same as other places because of where we are in the state." 

Burgoyne, who grew up in Michigan, said she moved to West Virginia when she met her husband, who was stationed at the Navy base in Brandywine. 

"We've known each other for years and started dating again," she recalled. "When we got married, I moved here. Now, I'm a West Virginian and even though he retired two years ago, we love it so much we decided to stay." 

Kevin Duncan, director of the discovery center at Seneca Rocks, grew up in the Adirondack Mountains but has lived throughout the country. Fate led him to Pendleton County, and now he says he doesn't see himself ever leaving.  

In their personal experiences, Burgoyne and Duncan said they have seen many move to Pendleton County from larger surrounding cities, citing specifically Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh. However, she said many residents also come from southern Ohio. 

 "If you're into the out of doors, this is your place," Duncan said. "I grew up in the East and had never been to West Virginia. I got here and this is gorgeous. You see beauty everywhere you look. You come here and say, ‘Who would have thunk it.'" 

So why do residents come from out of state as opposed to in state? 

"Where we are located, we're more accessible to folks on the other side of the mountain range. Whereas, even when I go to tourism meetings in Charleston and meet with other people who do similar jobs, they will say, ‘It's pretty over there but it's a long way.' Even if it's not a long way, it feels that way because of the mountains. Our demographic tends to be the other direction, which is fine." 

Burgoyne said many city residents vacation in Pendleton County to take advantage of the outdoor activities. This is why she decided to promote the county at a travel show in D.C. 

"It was really eye opening for folks from D.C. to come to the travel show," she said. "You're three hours from the Beltway and you can be in this. I showed pictures and told them, ‘It's right in your backyard and you don't realize it.' The ones I talked to, if they hadn't already been here, were shocked and amazed and wanted to be here. I collected 200 mailing addresses from that." 

Tourism is Pendleton County's major gem, Burgoyne said, and that's the main thing she promotes. 

"I believe at the current time, tourism is what is bringing in the folks to our county," Burgoyne said. "It wasn't always that way. We had a big thriving industry here but at this point, that's in kind of a lull at the moment. We have fantastic small businesses and I think the best way is to promote the small businesses and what we have to offer—adventure, tourism and outdoor activities." 

"From my perspective, this attracts the teenager to mid to late 30-year-old demographic." 

Hiring young locals also is important. Duncan said all three of the younger employees he's hired have come from Pendleton County. 

"We try to get kids right out of school and keep them here," he said.  "We want to get a local person here who is knowledgeable about the area … tell someone where the attractions are in the area. They've lived here longer and they know more about it." 

According to recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pendleton County's unemployment rate is 5.5 percent, which is lower than West Virginia's 7.3 percent and the nation's rate of 7.6 percent.  However, Burgoyne is concerned about the county's job market for younger career-seekers. 

Burgoyne speaks to high school and middle school kids to talk to them about staying in the county. 

"The more I interact with the kids … the more they see people that say, ‘Hey, my dad has a body shop here or a hardware store or my mom has a business over by the grocery store.' The more they see this, the more they know that this is a reality for them. It's not insurmountable. They just need those mentors. They need to see folks that they know are doing it and doing fine. They can emulate that. The more we can show that to them, the better they will be and the more interested they will be in staying."