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Analyzing Growth In Pennsylvania's Rural Counties

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Nicholas A. Tonelli
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An analysis of the commonwealth’s population by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania indicates new residents are choosing to settle in exurban areas over cities and suburbs.  The trend has caught the eye of community development groups in Western Pennsylvania, where counties like Butler and Washington are seeing rapid population growth.

“They see opportunity there and they’re taking advantage of it,” explains Rural Pennsylvania Senior Policy Analyst Jonathan Johnson.  He says Pennsylvania has 48 rural counties and 19 urban counties, which are based on whether they fall above or below a 284-persons per square mile population density line.  

Johnson told Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer that those moving here are a “mixed bag” demographic, but many of them are not married, nonwhite men who have a job and at least a bachelor’s degree. Most of them have moved to to Pennsylvania from New York, West Virginia or Ohio.  Within the state, Johnson notes a relatively new trend of east-to-west migration, which, for the first time in 20 years, has slowed the annual number of those leaving western Pennsylvania.

Whether the exurban population boom is sustainable is unpredictable, according to Johnson.  While many families are leaving urban regions, Johnson says cities are still attracting Millennials, who want to stay near metropolitan centers, and Baby Boomers, who don’t want the hassle of maintaining a large property.

Butler County Community Development Corporation Executive Director Ken Raybuck believes his region has been growing due to the availability of jobs as well as access to higher education.  He says the Butler County Community College and Slippery Rock University are preparing students for careers in fields relevant to the region, such as petroleum engineering.

“It’s a combination of both retaining existing population and bringing in new,” Raybuck says.

But why are people leaving the cities? Raybuck says it’s because regions like Butler County “have the whole package.” From low taxes to natural settings to basic livability, Raybuck sees rural areas providing an escape for residents where they can experience a slower pace at a better cost. 

“We’re not longer just a bed community, we’re a destination.”

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here.