Q&A: Is Virginia’s Famed ‘Golden Crescent’ Losing Its Luster?

May 9, 2023 By McGregor McCance, cmm9vg@virginia.edu McGregor McCance, cmm9vg@virginia.edu

For a while there, it looked like the Golden Crescent was going to take just about everything from the rest of Virginia. The money. The jobs. The growth. The political power.

Those who have lived in the commonwealth for the past few decades know this reference well. For those who haven’t, the Golden Crescent refers to the swath of Virginia that runs through the major metropolitan areas from Northern Virginia through Richmond and down to Hampton Roads.

Roughly following Interstates 95 and 64, and folding in the localities along the way, you end up with a crescent-moon shape, usually colored gold to convey its relative prosperity and promise. For years, the crescent shined brightly seemingly at the expense of the rest of the state.

But that three-decade reality has changed and continues to shift. The Golden Crescent just might be losing its luster.

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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.

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The suburbs of Richmond have attracted thousands of residents leaving Northern Virginia, helping the boost growth in the Richmond area even as it has slowed in Northern Virginia and been minimal in Hampton Roads. But most people leaving Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads are bypassing the rest of Virginia and moving to other states. Northern Virginia’s slowdown since the early 2010s has meant that Virginia lost its main engine for growth and it hasn’t yet found a replacement.

Q. Are there other areas in Virginia that could be mini-Golden Crescents (or some other name based on their geographic shape) in the future?

A. A replacement for Northern Virginia may be difficult to imagine, but a century ago, the fastest-growing part of the commonwealth was Southwest Virginia, while much of Northern Virginia was declining in population. Demographic and economic trends changed after World War II, and now they appear to be changing again. The shift to a large portion of work being done remotely has reordered demographic and economic trends in ways I think we are only starting to come to grips with.

A decade ago, demographic trends in most Virginia communities outside the Golden Crescent appeared pretty grim; many young adults had left, aging their communities and reducing growth. Yet as working from home began to take off during the late 2010s, remote workers were disproportionately concentrating in rural recreation counties, which began being called “Zoom towns” during the pandemic.

If remote work remains widespread, which I think is a pretty safe assumption, regions which offer a high quality of life, that are relatively affordable and have good transport connections will likely see above-average population growth. Virginia has a lot of communities that can check all three of those boxes.

Q. How has the greater Charlottesville area fared over this time? Are we shining?   

A. The Charlottesville area has had very steady population growth for decades now, outpacing the Golden Crescent in recent years. The increase in UVA’s enrollment, as well as the growth in the number of academic and medical employees, has helped drive much of the region’s population growth. But the number of high school graduates in Virginia will peak in a couple of years and there is already some concern in Richmond that Virginia’s elite universities are growing while enrollment is falling at some of its regional universities.

The Charlottesville metro area has also grown by attracting new residents, primarily from parts of the Northeast corridor, including Northern Virginia and New York. Even though New York has a smaller population than Florida, the Charlottesville metro area has eight times more residents from New York than from Florida. While housing in the Charlottesville area is expensive compared to most of the country, it is cheaper than in many parts of the Northeast corridor. The quality of life the region offers will likely continue to make it attractive for many new residents, particularly those moving from other high-cost parts of the country.

Q. Does this really matter, or are we inventing an issue because “Golden Crescent” just sounds cool and interesting?

A. I don’t think population growth is always a good thing or that decline is always bad. Most of the slowdown in growth in the Golden Crescent has been driven by Northern Virginia, where it likely has been welcomed by many residents who have had to cope with some of the country’s worst traffic congestion and most expensive housing. In the rest of Virginia, some who felt the Golden Crescent, particularly Northern Virginia, were increasingly dominating state politics may also welcome the slowdown.

However, lagging growth in the Golden Crescent has also been a symptom of an economy in Hampton Roads that isn’t producing enough good jobs to keep its young adults and a spiraling cost of living in Northern Virginia that is causing many of its residents to leave. The national economy has changed significantly since 2020; it isn’t obvious to me that growth will pick back up in the Golden Crescent or that other regions in the commonwealth will be able to replace it as Virginia’s engine for growth. Over the last few decades, parts of Virginia far from the Golden Crescent also benefited from its growth as Virginia’s economy and tax revenue surged.

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McGregor McCance

Darden School of Business Executive Editor