UVA Today checked in with Hamilton Lombard, a demographer at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center who has analyzed population trends in Virginia for years, to find out if that’s true, and why it matters.
Q. Is the Golden Crescent looking a little faded these days?
A. If you compare the Golden Crescent with other parts of the country, particularly metro areas in other Southeastern states, it hasn’t fared as well in recent years. During the 2010s, more people started moving out of Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, its two largest urban areas, and since 2020 out-migration has only accelerated from the region. In 2010, Northern Virginia had five of the 10 wealthiest counties in the country; in 2021, they had three. But the region is still growing and Loudoun County (where most households earned more than $150,000 in 2021) remains the wealthiest county in the country.
Q. Its population is still growing overall, but not as fast as before?
A. Yes, even before the pandemic, the population of the Golden Crescent was only growing at close to a third the rate it had in recent decades, while most other metro areas in the Southeast have continued to grow faster than the country as a whole. In the next year or so, the Atlanta metro area should grow larger than the D.C. metro area in population. Around the same time, Jacksonville [Florida] should surpass Hampton Roads in population as well.
By the late 2010s, the share of Virginia’s population living in the Golden Crescent stopped growing, after steadily increasing from less than half before World War II to over 70% by 2015. If it weren’t for the large increase in deaths during the pandemic in Virginia’s rural counties, the share of Virginia’s population living in the Golden Crescent would be shrinking as more people have moved out of the region.
Q. Where are they going?
A. Mostly southward. Charlotte and Raleigh have been popular destinations, though recently Florida has replaced North Carolina as the state Virginia is losing the most residents to. In 2010, Virginia lost nearly 3,000 more residents to other Southern states than it attracted from them. But recently released data shows that number has risen to nearly 32,000, which is the main reason why growth has slowed so much in the Golden Crescent and Virginia as a whole.
Many leaving the Golden Crescent are also staying in Virginia. Popular recreation counties along the Blue Ridge Mountains and Chesapeake Bay have attracted more residents in recent years. Nelson and Northumberland counties are two good examples. Many of Virginia’s smaller metro areas, including Charlottesville and Winchester, have also been among the top destinations for people moving out of the Golden Crescent.
Q. Is the entire Golden Crescent reflecting the changes, or is this more specifically about Northern Virginia?
A. Northern Virginia contributed to most of Virginia’s population and economic growth since it replaced Hampton Roads as Virginia’s largest urban area at the end of the Cold War. Much of the growth we have seen in other parts of Virginia in recent decades, whether in Richmond or Charlottesville, has been a spillover from Northern Virginia.
Now that Northern Virginia’s growth is also slowing, we are seeing growth slow in many other parts of Virginia as well. During the early 2010s, Northern Virginia alone was adding close to 50,000 residents to Virginia’s population each year, but since 2020, the region’s population has only grown by 20,000.