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Study reveals ‘troubling’ trends

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

After 18 months of studying the region, New River Valley Planning District Commission’s Livability Initiative has uncovered some trends that could have a major impact on service needs in Pulaski County and other parts of the region in coming years.

The purpose of the Initiative is to determine trends in the New River Valley (NRV) and focus on methods of addressing their impacts on future growth in the region. NRVPDC recently released an interim report on the study and is seeking public comment on the preliminary findings.

The interim report and a Community Priorities Survey can be found at www.nrvlivability.org. NRV citizens are urged to take the survey in order to provide feedback on preliminary goals. For purposes of the study, the NRV includes Pulaski, Floyd, Giles and Montgomery counties and the city of Radford.

So far, the study has found, among other things, that Pulaski County’s population is aging, its farms are shrinking and the number of workers having to commute outside the county to work is increasing. Perhaps the most eye-opening trends, however, were those involving health issues.

The study has determined Pulaski County has the highest public cost per resident for diabetes in the New River Valley and that the death rate from prescription drug abuse is six times the state average. The county also exceeds state averages for teen pregnancies, the number of children living in poverty and the percent of adult smokers.

“It looks like a number of the health attributes in the report were troubling, or perhaps concerning is a better word,” Massie District Supervisor Andy McCready said of the findings.

The NRV “ranks poorly on several health-related measures” when compared with the Commonwealth and national benchmarks, according to the report. It states, “A few issues stand out as particularly troubling,” including smoking, physical inactivity, obesity, substance abuse, poverty and teen pregnancy rates.

Besides being above the state average, Pulaski County also led the NRV on some health-related issues, including teen pregnancies, percentage of children in poverty and percentage of adult smokers.

With regards to population age, the initiative projects that by 2030, a fifth of the NRV’s population will be over age 65, meaning the number of seniors will nearly double over current levels.

“In Giles and Pulaski, the under-25-year-old population is in decline relative to other age groups as many young people seek opportunities outside the region,” states the report.

The study also points out that Pulaski’s working-age population is declining as career workers seek employment outside the county. “This will result in a significantly older labor force and a much older population. An aging population will place strains on services and the tax base supporting those services,” it adds.

In terms of agriculture, the report points out that “farms are shrinking” and “farmers are getting older” as younger generations show less interest in continuing family farms.  As of 2007, the average farm operator was 58 years old and 58 percent of them relied on a job other than farming for their primary income. In Pulaski County, the size of farms has been on the decline since the late 1990s.

“Shrinking farmlands alter the rural character and scenic beauty that defines this region,” states the report. “With fewer farms and fewer farming families, the skills, traditions and culture built around the rural economy are less likely to contribute to a rural community’s sense of place and history.”

The report also points out that housing and transportation costs account for about 40 percent of median household incomes in the region. NRV residents are said to travel an average of 11,874 miles annually, spending more than $7,500 annually, on average, for transportation costs. Unfortunately, it’s the workers on the lower end of the wage scale that tend to travel the farthest to work, therefore having the highest transportation costs.

“Workers earning less than $15,000 a year commute an average of 26 miles more per day than workers who earn $40,000 or more,” states the study. It points out that many of the lower income families are unable to find affordable housing close to work or commercial areas, so “these families must often choose lower-cost housing farther away and incur higher transportation costs.”

In Pulaski County, the percent of workers commuting outside the county for work has increased from 39.5 percent in 2005 to 53.6 percent in 2010. About 28 percent of Pulaski County citizens earning less than $35,000 per year drive more than 25 miles to work, compared to about 20 percent of citizens earning annual salaries of more than $35,000.

With household electrical costs in the NRV having increased 30 percent per year for the last five years (based on an increase in price and use), the report points out that a third of the valley’s households are considered to be “cost burdened.”

A household is cost burdened if more than 30 percent of the household income is used for housing costs. In Pulaski, 32 percent of households are considered to be cost burdened.

The fact half of the homes in the NRV were built prior to 1974 and a quarter were built prior to 1960, only magnifies the problem because the homes are less energy efficient.

“The loss of jobs in Pulaski and Giles could impact the quality of the house stock in these counties,” the study says, because “reduced household income and increased vacancies often lead to under-maintenance, poor energy efficiency and increased physical deterioration.”

With regards to jobs and education, the reports states that the NRV lags behind state averages for educational attainment, particularly when it comes to post-high school education. This poses a problem when combined with the fact jobs in manufacturing are decreasing in favor of professional, scientific or technical jobs.

“For middle-skill and higher-skill workers, there are many opportunities for job training and career advancement in the NRV. However, this is not the case for the region’s lower-skill workers,” states the report.

Only 13 percent of Pulaski County residents have post-high school degrees.

The report states, “New demands of the 21st Century are bringing shifts to the job market and require workers with more advanced skills Without skill advancement, residents are poorly positioned to take advantage of job opportunities and build income.”

The report goes on to point out, “These citizens and their families are among the most vulnerable to changes in the cost of housing, transportation, food and rising energy and health care costs.”

So what can be done to change these “troubling” trends?

With many of the challenges and trends being inter-related, the Planning District Commission notes that making progress in one area “can lead to improvements in others.”

To enhance living and working environments, the report suggests the NRV work to increase housing near jobs and ensure a variety of housing choices for all stages of life and income. The number of households that are cost burdened could be reduced through programs to increase energy efficiency in the older housing stock.

In order to reduce costs associated with an aging population, the report says improving transportation and seeking ways to allow residents to age within their existing housing and communities.

“To enable more people to age successfully in their homes and communities, modifying existing housing can help meet the changing physical and cognitive needs of older adults,” the report states. “Thinking about how to make housing more age-friendly at the design and construction phase is also important.”

Employment issues could be addressed through improving the telecommunications infrastructure to attract new business and keep existing businesses and by supporting a diverse economic base from high-tech industry to small business.

Training programs will help address the need for a skilled workforce, while enhancing the transportation network through transit service will help workers get to their jobs economically.

The report suggests several methods for addressing the health and agricultural issues revealed through the study. One suggestion, farmers markets, can help “kill two birds with one stone.” For example, the markets provide a source of income for farmers, while also increasing the population’s access to healthy food.

According to the report, 17 percent of Pulaski County residents have limited access to healthy foods, compared to 7 percent in Virginia as a whole.

Protecting and enhancing recreational opportunities also is important to addressing health issues, the study recommends. “Communities that make it more convenient to make healthy choices have better health outcomes for their citizens,” states the findings.

Other suggestions for improving the quality of life in the NRV include celebrating the importance of arts, culture and history and strengthening downtowns through revitalization.

The next step in the three-year project is to determine where communities within the NRV want to be in 20 years. The Community Priorities Survey at www.nrvlivability.org will be helpful in compiling the next phase of the report.

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