What Comes Next for Ashland?*

Taking a Look At the Huntington-Ashland-Ironton Metro Area

My wife was born and raised in Ashland, Kentucky, the birthplace and namesake of Ashland Oil, a town that was once a key part of a major industrial and logistics hub: the Huntington-Ashland-Ironton “Tristate Area.” We still go back pretty regularly to visit family. In between good times with kin, I can never help but notice the city itself. The downtown was clearly once a bustling place. But now, it’s full of empty buildings. A few spaces have been reclaimed for various “creative” purposes, some old industrial areas have been rendered into beautiful event spaces. For example, we held our wedding reception in this amazing venue in downtown Ashland: it was once a warehouse and industrial train stop, then a bus depot, then an Amtrak stop and ticket desk, and now basically the world’s best (and cheapest! holy cow we paid basically nothing for this venue!) reception venue.

* Insert obligatory Phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes pun here.

Source. And yes, we square-danced at our wedding.
The train station was the venue. As you can see from the surrounds, you literally cannot get more “reclaimed industrial space” than that. So hip.

But for all that there have been “nice” things, Ashland is evidently declining. Every time we go home we hear about a new round of layoffs and downsizings at employers in the area.

So I figured it was high time I actually take a look at Ashland, demographically speaking, and produce some kind of worthwhile analysis. My hope is that a thorough demographic analysis by a friend of the city will be of some use to people there, but maybe it won’t be. We’ll see.

Now, in fairness, while my personal interest is in Ashland, much of the data is only available at the Tristate level. As such, I will be alternating freely between discussions of “Ashland,” and discussions of the whole Huntington-Ashland Metro Area (Tristate Area).


First: Where Is This Place?

Readers from the Tristate Area and some others will know where Ashland is, and the basic geography of the region, but many of my regular readers may not. So, for clarity, let’s find Ashland.

That red pin marks Ashland. It’s just north of I-64, along the Ohio River, just beyond where the Big Sandy River flows into it. The Big Sandy marks the KY/WV border, and flows down from the heart of Appalachia, draining most of far eastern Kentucky, the westernmost parks of southwest Virginia, and the entire West Virginia borderlands. The river is navigable, with commercial shipping of coal the main traffic along it. It also has environmental problems related to coal: a coal pond break in 2000 led to a toxic spill 30 times larger than the Exxon-Valdez, killing every living thing in many nearby streams, and polluting hundreds of miles of the Tug Fork, Big Sandy, and Ohio Rivers. School kids will still learn about the Exxon-Valdez today. They won’t hear about the Martin County Coal Slurry Spill despite 20–30k people losing their drinking water.

But of course, mining has also done good things for Ashland! Natural resource wealth is practically the reason Ashland exists at all. Before coal, Ashland was a small hamlet called Poage’s Landing, although the main industry was still iron-smelting, as Northeastern Kentucky had iron deposits. But by the 1850s, coal mining was beginning in earnest, and coal companies needed a real town and logistics hub for their operations, so they built Ashland. The rise of coal was the rise of Ashland, as it was for every town in the entire region. Before coal, Poage’s Landing was a few hundred people. At the coal-labor peak, it was 30,000.

Of course, Ashland’s main industry wasn’t mining itself, but processing mined products: Ashland Oil, AK Steel, and many other steel, processing, oil, or intermediate products companies created a booming industrial core. And when I say “booming,” I do mean booming. A 1955 report, for example, describes the 1920 arrival of Armco steel (later AK Steel) as “the greatest single event in Ashland’s history.” Soon after, Ashland Oil was founded, giving Ashland, KY the corporate headquarters for what would go on to become a Fortune 500 company. They built a small airport without needing to raise taxes or issue special bonds, they got full mail service, population doubled in 5 years, and living standards rose to something near parity with the rest of the nation: a rare level of prosperity to find in Appalachia.

And all of this was thanks to mining and heavy industry attendant on mining.

Today, the steel mills are closing down, or adopting labor-saving technologies. Mining has slackened off in recent years and, again, does not require as much labor as in the past. Ashland Oil has moved its headquarters downriver to a KY suburb of Cincinnati. And the city has shrunk accordingly.

Zooming in a bit, we can see the Ohio and Big Sandy Rivers, we can see Ashland on the Kentucky side, Huntington on the West Virginia side, and, upriver a bit, Ironton on the Ohio Side. And, of course, we can see how all of these cities cling to the major valleys and flat spaces, enveloped as they are by the rugged hills of Appalachia. Indeed, that is a critical element to note when considering these cities: they are tightly geographically confined. The hills around them are not necessarily easy sites for housing development, road maintenance, or commercial districts. Flat spaces for expansive construction are comparatively rare.

We can also show the metro area more formally, like so:

Here, you can more easily see the Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia sections. Ashland is in Boyd County, Ironton in Lawrence County, and Huntington primarily in Cabell County. Today, Ashland still has its old airport, but it is essentially only for charter flights. Huntington, meanwhile, has actually gotten busier in recent years, but persistently has more departures than arrivals, and is served by just 3–6 passenger flights a day on American or Allegiant Airlines. The American flights go to Charlotte as a hub, while Allegiant flights can be bought direct to five different airports…all in Florida.

I-64, of course, was complete in this area in the 1960s, linking Ashland and Huntington to the world. I-64 was originally supposed to go through Huntington directly, and pass much closer to Ashland than it now does, but ultimately bypassed them both. I-64 was fully completed in 1976, just before Boyd County’s population began to decline, and a full 15 years into Ashland’s population decline.

So now we know a bit about the Tristate Area’s geography. Let’s move on to population.

Population in Decline

There are serious constraints on getting good data for Ashland, because it is not, and never has been, a really large city. At its peak it still had just 30,000 people or so. At well below the 50,000-person threshold for 1-year American Community Survey samples, we’re down one major source. We’re left instead with either 5-year samples, which give no sense of recent changes; Census Population Estimates, which give insufficient detail; or Huntington-Ashland Metro Area statistics, which include many other places.

However, for basic population estimates, the Census Population Estimates (PEP from here on) are good enough for baseline population figures. Here’s my estimate of the annual population of the 3 major urban centers in the Huntington-Ashland Metro Area (Tristate Area from here on):

As noted above, Huntington is in West Virginia, Ashland in Kentucky, Ironton in Ohio.

As you can tell, population has declined. Huntington’s population has fallen about 44% from its peak, while Ironton and Ashland have only fallen about 33% from their peaks. Huntington’s greater urban density made it more susceptible to suburbanization, even as its nearer proximity to the interstate and its larger airport made exit from Appalachia easier.

However, many locals will note that much of this population decline does indeed stem from suburbanization. But in mountainous Appalachia, a new suburb may be separated from the city by a ridge or two, and join a different town, instead of becoming part of the original municipality. So actual population decline is less severe. Okay, fair enough! Here’s data for Cabell County, WV; Boyd County, KY; and Lawrence County, OH.

Recent declines are indeed much less severe! Cabell County has only declined by about 11%, Boyd County by about 13%, and Lawrence County by about 4%! Plus, the peaks are more recent.

But let’s be clear: these are still declines. The nation on the whole has experienced rising population. The decline is most severe in Boyd County, Kentucky, where Ashland is located. Declining population is seen by many analysts as having bad follow-on effects for a locality as shrinking markets yield lower revenues for remaining firms, who then face declining profits or are leaned on for higher taxes, etc. Plus, a declining pool of labor is less likely to attract investment.

However, regular readers will recall that I’ve written about Appalachia generally in the past. The inner core of Appalachia (of which I count Ashland as a part) has seen, on the whole, about a 19% decline in population from its peak in the 1950s. In other words, Ashland’s decline has been markedly less-severe than the region on the whole.

We can also look at the Tristate Area more broadly, covering the whole metro area.

Here, we see a story less of decline and more of stagnation. The Tristate Area has seen pretty stable population since the 1980s. While many analysts believe rising population may boost productivity and output per capita, there is no reason why stable population should make things worse. And yet, many in the Tristate Area do seem to think things are getting worse.

Why might they think that?

An Economy On the Ropes

We can start with a look at some very basic industrial statistics. The Tristate Area port is the largest inland port in the nation.

This may surprise you. But it’s worth noting one reason for this designation is that the Tristate Area port designates almost 200 miles of waterway access, bumped up from 14 miles in 1999. I am not sure how many other inland ports are designated at a similar scale, but it does mean you should understand that this “inland port” is actually a whole series of ports including Ashland, Huntington, and all the way up to Portsmouth, Ohio, which isn’t even part of the Huntington-Ashland metro area. All the same, here’s the tonnage data:

Ignore the huge jump in 2000; as I said, that’s due to a change in classification. In all likelihood, shipping volume rose in the early 90s, declined in the late 90s, was stable through the early 2000s, and has declined since. The Tristate Area has gone from being the nation’s 4th biggest port in 2005, to its 16th in 2014. Yowza. That 37.5 million tons of lost cargo traffic represents lost jobs: for miners, for equipment technicians who support mines, for mine managers, for steel workers, for steel equipment suppliers, for longshoremen, for port managers, for tons of people.

Now, it may also be that changes in rail/water economics have caused more freight to move out by way of rail. I don’t have great data on that, but I wouldn’t be surprised. But even so, this data speaks to a key symbolic truth: the Tristate Area has been suffering.

The data above bear this out. In 2007, before recent declines began, Huntington already had one of the lowest hours-worked-to-population ratios in West Virginia. Since 2007, it has gotten worse, falling by 6%. Meanwhile, Wheeling, Morgantown, and, to a lesser extent, Parkersburg have seen improvements.

It’s not just hours worked, however. Wages in West Virginia are persistently low, but the Tristate Area has also seen slower growth in hourly earnings. While West Virginia on the whole has seen a 22% increase in nominal hourly earnings since 2007, the Tristate Area has seen just a 14% increase, the lowest of any metro area except Beckley. Wheeling saw 22%, Parkersburg saw 46%. Now, in fairness, growth rates in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Virginia all ranged from 12% to 16%, but they start from higher bases as well. In no year since 2007 have the Tristate area’s hourly earnings been even equal to, let alone higher than, hourly earnings in Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, or Virginia.

Likewise, it’s worth digressing for a moment to look at coal production in Kentucky and West Virginia, which drives much economic activity in the region.

Mine labor hours, a good measure of actual labor demanded, rose from 2003 to 2011, but have since fallen dramatically. Meanwhile, production flatlined until about 2008, and has since declined. The result of all this is that the the amount of coal produced per labor-hour has declined dramatically; in other words, the average productivity of labor in KY and WV coal mines has fallen off steeply. However, it seems to have reached a bottom now. By 2011 or 2012, productivity per labor-hour had stabilized, and it is now climbing some.

I don’t know what’s behind these statistics. Certainly many of the easiest-to-mine areas have been tapped out. Increased regulations could also cause more labor-time spent on activities that aren’t directly productive. Unionization could also have forced companies to consume excess labor, which is now undergoing a “hard reset” of bankruptcy and unemployment, when it could have been a “soft reset” if labor was more flexible 15 years ago. It could also be that high energy prices in the 2000s allowed unproductive firms to operate, while falling prices recently have skimmed off the least productive mines. Or it could be something else altogether. Whatever the case, the only real hope for mining employment in central Appalachia in the future is that the key productivity metric, coal produced per labor hour consumed, continues to rise. If it rises, firms may see greater benefit to hiring more workers, or giving current workers more hours. But if that statistics remains low, so will coal employment.

Now, I should say, I make it sound like coal is the only extractive industry, but it’s not. Kentucky and West Virginia both produce small amounts of oil. West Virginia’s oil production has tripled since 2012, though remains under 8,000 barrels per year. Natural gas production has also expanded such that West Virginia now produces as much natural gas as the entire Gulf of Mexico offshore operations, which, granted, is still just 4% of production, but it’s a 5-fold increase from 2010. Kentucky also produces a marginal amount of natural gas.

There’s also, of course, the timber sector. In Kentucky, coal mining employs about 8,700 people. All other mining and logging employs about 5,500. Non-coal mining and logging has been pretty much stable since 1990, while coal mining has been in steep decline (coal mining employed nearly 30,000 Kentuckians in 1990). I unfortunately don’t have data splitting out West Virginia due to BLS privacy-suppression and sample size issues, but it’s likely a similar story.

Now, of course, the real money, especially for a metro area rather than the rural countryside, is in value-add, and on that front, the metal-and-coal sector is actually doing better than the wood-and-paper sector. Kentucky’s metal-and-coal manufacturing is still well below its late-1990s peak employment of over 60,000, but, at over 50,000, is well above is 2010 trough around 43,000 steel and refining workers. Wood and paper products manufacturing, meanwhile, at about 29,000 workers, is near historic lows, down from 41,000 around 2000.

But what does all this have to do with the Tristate Area, or Ashland? Remember when I said that a 1955 city history called the arrival of Armco, later AK Steel, the most important event in Ashland’s history? Well, the main Ashland Works that employed 800 people were temporarily idled last Christmas, with over 600 employees laid off. Now, in a town of 21,000 people, that’s not just a large impact, that’s the ground falling out of the economy. That’s something like 5% of the entire employment base going away. Since then, Kentucky has offered AK Steel generous tax exemptions to restart its Ashland facility, but it hasn’t worked thus far. Declining steel shipments have caused layoffs as far away as Toledo, Ohio in logistics industries like railroads, and undoubtedly have caused layoffs in similar sectors around Ashland.

One last thing. Many of these unemployed people will get other jobs in the area. Some will move elsewhere. But some will neither move no find new formal employment, and seek various means of supporting themselves outside of their paycheck. One such means is public support.

Since 1969, personal current transfers, which are cash- and cash-like transfers from the government, have risen from about 12% of the Tristate area’s personal income to over 27%. Digest that: over a quarter of all the income in the Tristate area comes from government transfers of some kind. As you can see, this trend continues to rise, and is well above the average for US metro areas.

Declining coal output and productivity, layoffs in the manufacturing sector, a smaller logistics sector than in the past, declining population…this is bad news. There’s more bad news, of course: the biggest employer, a hospital, has been hit by a large-scale fraud case against one of its most recognized surgeons. The county school system attendance rolls have fallen by more than 100 students in just 3 years, meaning that educational jobs will likely fall.

Times are tough in the Tristate area. The result is predictable: people are leaving.

Migration in the Tristate

To start with, we can look at headline migration statistics, just plain net migration for the metro area on the whole.

We have approximate agreement between our two sources that (1) migration has very recently been very negative and (2) that it was probably positive as recently as 2010. The worsening migration balance actually correlates quite nicely with the coal mining and freight traffic data we saw, suggesting that we’re probably on the right track here.

But when it comes to exact numbers, the matter is far less clear. Did the Tristate Are lose 7,000 people due to migration in 2015, or did it lose 1,700? Understanding this data can help local leaders plan better.

Thankfully, the ACS data comes with margins of error. So now we’re going to digress into a discussion of statistical significance.

How to Read Migration Data Sources

The above graph shows the basic ACS data. However, ACS supplies us with a margin of error for its estimates of inflows and outflows, as well as for population. These margins of error supply us with a whole range of possible migration rates. Here’s a depiction of the error-band for net migration rates:

As you can see, there’s a huge margin of error. The steep decline in 2015 might not even actually be negative! Given ACS survey error, it is possible that net migration was actually positive in 2015. It’s not likely! But it is possible.

Let’s try to understand this data even better and run through some hypothetical examples of what the Tristate Area’s net migration rate might look like.

Given the huge error bands on the ACS data, any of the folored lines you see here are possible. The blue line is the actual ACS-provided “central estimate,” and the one I’ve shown in the net migration chart above. But those yellow and purple lines, while extremely unlikely, are nonetheless statistically possible. Maybe Ashland’s net migration has been bouncing around wildly! Maybe it has a big arc to it!

Or, maybe it’s moving persistently downward, as the brownish line shows! Or, maybe it’s moving persistently upward, as the green line shows!

Why do I take time to point this out? Well, first, because I’m a nerd and I like showing the technical features of the data. But second, and far more importantly, it’s important for policymakers to understand that the actual data on migration and population is somewhat uncertain, and that even significant improvements could be swallowed up by the margin of error.

We can also see where the PEP net migration data falls in this range of estimates:

Comfortably within the margin of error! Now, if ACS data is to be believed, then we may expect that next year’s PEP data will show a slight downward revision in the 2015 PEP net migration for the Tristate Area, and thus possibly a slight downward revision in total population; but, as PEP derives their net migration estimate using a different method, that guess remains just a guess.

We can also look at IRS net migration data. This data is far harder to collate by county or metro area and has had some methodology changes, so I only show the last four years of it. I show it separately from other net migration data because the IRS is not technically measuring individual migration, and is not tracking all people. The IRS migration file tracks about 255 million tax exemptions, which is well shy of the whole population. Also,, which IRS-year corresponds to which ACS- or PEP-year can be a challenging question. So it’s best to take IRS data as a generality.

IRS data show reliably negative migration from 2011–2012 to 2014–2015, and it seems to be getting worse. The absolute numbers given also roughly correspond with PEP numbers, which is encouraging.

We can also look at county-specific estimates from the PEP data:

As you can see, Putnam County has reliably had the most positive migration, while other counties have more variety. In recent years, however, Boyd County, which contains Ashland, has had some of the most negative net migration, along with Lawrence County, Ohio. For what it’s worth, IRS data loosely confirms this story, with Boyd losing 600 net exemptions from 2012–2015, and Lawrence losing 800; though IRS has Cabell losing 1,600, so even more severe. Meanwhile, Putnam is the most positive, as it is here.

Overall, then, we can say, with reasonable confidence, that the Tristate Area is experiencing negative net migration, and it’s getting worse. Recent outflows have probably been most severe in Ashland and Ironton.

Who’s Moving, and to Where?

The first question, about who is moving, is pretty easy to answer, as we have detailed demographic information from the ACS.

I think age-based data is most interesting. If you buy the ACS figures (and I suspect they’re a bit extreme), then migration got worse for almost every age group, but saw the steepest decline for kids under 18, and for 25–34-year-olds, likely to be many of those kids’ parents. The only age group to see their net migration improve was retirees, though it remained negative.

Flows of college-age kids remain positive, which is very interesting. Few struggling cities manage to attract young people. I strongly suspect this is a result of Marshall University being present in Huntington, so Ashland would not be a major beneficiary, but it is curious that these inflows are not consistent offset by outflows in the next age group older.

While we could break down migration by other demographic categories (race, income, citizenship, housing status, education, sex, etc), I don’t think that will be extremely interesting. The one thing I will note here, however, is a striking sex difference. According to the ACS 5-year data, Ashland has lost about 4,000 to 6,000 women due to net migration from 2010–2014. Meanwhile, Ashland has basically broken even with regards to men. Such a large sex imbalance in net migration is extremely rare.

I’m not sure exactly why women in particular leave the Tristate Area, but it could relate to better educational or earning opportunities in other cities… or it could relate to romantic prospects, since the Tristate has fully 10,000 more women than it does men. Now, this gap is worst among the elderly, which is mostly just because men have shorter lifespans, especially in areas where men often work dangerous or physically demanding jobs, or have high military participation. But what’s interesting is that women substantially outnumber mean from ages 25–39 as well!

Anyways, that’s enough on who leaves the Tristate. The next issue to consider might be where they are going.

We can start out with metro-area-to-metro-area migration. This data has somewhat lower margins of error than county data, so is a bit more reliable. As you can see, there are substantial losses to a wide variety of cities; but the Tristate Area does actually gain from some cities, like Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Atlanta. However, these gains don’t make up for deep losses to Houston, Columbus, Jacksonville, Morgantown, Parkersburg-Vienna, and, the grand-daddy of them all… Lexington, Kentucky.

At -437 per year, the ACS is suggesting that the period 2009–2013 saw a net of about 2,000 Tristaters move to Lexington. The gross value is even more striking: while about 175 Lexingtonians moved to the Tristate each year, over 600 Tristaters moved to Lexington.

This makes Lexington #3 in terms of gross outflows, behind Columbus, Ohio and Charleston, West Virginia; but the Tristate Area makes bigger gains from Columbus (466 per year) or Charleston (1,761 per year) than it does from Lexington, which balances things out. Charleston is large and close, and migration there is almost exactly balances, so we can put that down to normal churn. On the other hand, the 4th biggest outflows, and 2nd most negative net flows, are to Morgantown, WV.

What Could Cause These Outflows?

Oh, c’mon. Can’t you tell? What do Columbus, Lexington, and Morgantown all have in common? Simple: The Ohio State University, the University of Kentucky, and West Virginia University are in those towns. Gross outflows to Morgantown are a bit lower because some West Virginians in the Tristate will attend Marshall, a hometown public university, but Morgantown is smaller and booming, so flows back to Huntington are much smaller, driving net migration more deeply into the red.

This driver of outflows is unlikely to change. Ashland has no major public university, and the state of Kentucky is not likely to promote the establishment of new universities any time soon, nor is UK likely to put a satellite campus in Ashland. Marshall is quite large already, but, given how many of the Tristate’s young people are Kentuckians or Ohioans, or pulled away to the state flagship university, there’s only so much Marshall can do to push migration upwards. Ironton in Ohio meanwhile does have a 2,000-student branch of Ohio University but, again, that’s not likely to have tons of growth potential, and extremely unlikely to be a huge recruiter from distant areas. Indeed, it’s likely that many students do a year or two there, then transfer to the main campus.

But while these negative flows may bode ill for the Tristate Area’s future population growth, they’re not entirely bad. Local officials can have some pride knowing that their local high schools are good enough to train enough students for college that it shows up in population survey data. At the same time, without a larger knowledge-sector in the Tristate Area, it is going to be hard to ever draw those young people back home. Getting a robust knowledge-sector, meanwhile, usually requires large investments either in the government, finance, technology, philanthropic, or educational sectors. Healthcare can be a growth engine as well, and Ashland at least is very strong in that area, but a lone hospital in an economy with few other opportunities will always face difficulty recruiting talent, keeping staff, and enjoying any follow-on benefits.

We can also get more geographically granulated and look at county-level migration.

County data, while subject to higher margins of error, shows again the prominence of UK and OSU: Fayette County, KY and Franklin County, OH are #2 and #3 in terms of the number of outflows. Monongalia County is also high up there: WVU.

Many of the counties around the Kentucky fringes of the Tristate Area are also bright red, like Carter and Lawrence County Kentucky. The suburbs of Ashland are extending further and further towards Lexington, as the I-64 corridor slowly knits together the Bluegrass State. But aside from these, I’m not sure how much we should conclude from this data.

Let’s Recap

So, with all this data, we’ve found that:

  1. The Tristate Area’s net migration is negative, and probably getting worse, and probably most severely negative around Ashland and Ironton.
  2. This is largely due to worsening economic conditions, especially related to coal, steel, and related logistics industries.
  3. However, the geography of the Tristate’s migration suggests that the long-term migration problem relates to weakness in the educational sector, not the industrial sector.
  4. Net migration is most negative for women and for children.

This, then, tells us some possible avenues of approach for improvement that could, at least in theory, be done if the Tristate Area wants to change its current trajectory. Now, to be clear, I don’t offer these as silver-bullets to achieve immediate prosperity. Nobody can offer that. Furthermore, the local economic development organization, Ashland Alliance, has its own efforts obtaining certifications showing the area could support the aerospace industry. I wish them the best in their efforts and hope they succeed; at the same time, well, here’s the trajectory of aerospace-related manufacturing employment in the US:

Now, those workers are very productive and make lots of very nice airplanes… but there’s only so much room for growth in an industry with flat or declining total employment. Now it’s true, Kentucky actually is a major player in the aerospace industry, especially for parts… but aerospace manufacturing employs a maximum of 7,000 Kentuckians, throughout the whole commonwealth, which is just a bit above where it was 10 years ago at 6,600–6,900.

The reality is that modern manufacturing just does not need as many workers as it used to. Areas like the Tristate are not going to be able to sustain themselves just by hopping from one manufacturing industry to another.

So what can they do? Well, here are some thoughts I’ve jotted down, some things I would like to know or do if I were “King for a Day” of the Tristate:

  1. Carry out a survey of women in the Tristate area, and those formerly in the Tristate Area, to figure out why so many of them left: was it just about education? Did sexual mores or romantic opportunity matter? Did they experience or fear experiencing discrimination? Were there specific obstacles to women achieving their life objectives in the Tristate Area that can be addressed or fixed?
  2. Economic development agencies can seek to promote local university partnerships for businesses with Ohio University’s South Campus, or with Marshall University, or with Ashland’s community college: investments in research institutes at these universities will outlast the businesses that make them! And robust research clusters will in turn attract businesses! To be clear, there is absolutely no reason why research clusters need to be in big urban centers. Small cities can have good research centers, if leaders, especially in the business and education sectors, prioritize that. Plus, firms often like making these kinds of donations if they get access to a talent pipeline of students and their name on a plaque.
  3. Survey the students who have left the Tristate Area to figure out what their careers are: figure out if any of them are clustered in a field the Tristate Area could enter. If you already have a uniquely large number of local kids interested in a specific topic and getting degrees in it, maybe the Tristate should just look for ways to draw that business sector in. Play to tomorrow’s strengths, not yesterday’s.
  4. Do market research exploring how the Tristate Area is perceived by potential investors and workers: what are perceptions about quality of life? How can any negative perceptions be addressed?
  5. Could more large state universities in Kentucky be induced to open a branch or satellite campus in Ashland, both creating more investment, a larger pool of knowledge and talent, and reducing out-migration? Indeed, combined with the business/research partnerships outlined above, a new branch campus could be invaluable. Morehead State University has a satellite campus in Ashland with quite limited offerings, but it does not appear to (1) be very large or (2) have a robust research capability. Without some kind of actual research institute, the local-area returns to investment in higher education will be slim.

These are broad ideas, but there are also specific assets to consider. The Tristate Area is not short on available storefronts, or downtown lofts. Both cities, and many of their surrounding towns, have historic, potentially beautiful downtowns well suited to density and walking, if they wanted to make it so. Ashland boasts a new, beautiful riverfront park as well. And throughout the Tristate Area, there’s no shortage of available real estate: residential vacancy has risen from probably between 7 and 10% in 2009 to 13–16% today. Data on Ashland proper has a very high margin of error, but suggests that residential vacancy within the city may have risen from 6–12% around 2010–2013 to 10–20% in 2015.

You see it when you drive around in all the for-sale signs. But while this is sad, it also presents an opportunity. The only major amenity the Tristate Area really lacks is a major airport hub; and that is a serious deficiency. But it does have other assets, like the Amtrak line that can drop riders off right in the Ashland or Huntington downtown areas. Ashland has done some work to improve its stop a bit (again, we used the train station as our wedding reception venue: it’s that pretty), but there’s more to be done especially in terms of exploiting the retail potential for the spot. Huntington’s Amtrak stop is downright ugly, and on the wrong side of the tracks from downtown from a pedestrian point of view, but that’s not the end of the world. Ashland as a city has also invested in some beautiful, functional green spaces.

Other nearby cities also have places, individual street corners and blocks, where it’s obvious that a little work could transform it from a depressed post-industrial street corner to a beautiful, almost hip spot. Like, for example:

Catlettsburg.

Are there things to be improved? Sure. But high-potential street corners like this are not that rare in the Tristate Area. And, of course, some locals have worked hard and poured into their towns and made good results. But Ashland is handicapped by a key problem: young people want and need to go to college, and Ashland doesn’t have a robust higher educational sector.

Comparing to Other Cities

In fact, let’s do a quick inventory of every Kentucky city with over 20,000 people, and a few salient characteristics:

As you can see, just 2 of these cities have shrinking population: Ashland and Paducah. Both are border, riparian cities with a history of heavy industry, no nearby major city to supplement amenities, no major university presence, and no major military presence. Paducah does have the financial benefit of being a county seat, which Ashland does not have. Indeed, Ashland is the only city of its size to check zero of these boxes, and its decline is, notably, faster than Paducah’s. If we go down the list to smaller cities, we encounter places with an asset inventory similar to Ashland’s like Madisonville (shrinking), Glasgow (growing slowly), Somerset (stable population), or Middlesboro (rapid decline).

Meanwhile, college-towns like Danville, Berea, and Murray are all poised, in the next decade or two, to overtake Ashland in population. Why? Because they have universities, and those universities help drive spillover-benefits for the local community.

Now, not every town needs to or can viably have a large university. But every town can focus on developing world-class talent in something. For a century, the Tristate Area had world-class talent in refining, metalworking, logistics, and mining. Those industries are declining, and the revenues were not invested in the right places to propel future growth. Indeed, much of the profit from Tristate industries was poured into Lexington, or Columbus, or Cincinnati, or Louisville, or Frankfurt, or Charleston, or elsewhere. Now, a town like Ashland has to face a reality where, even if the steel and coal industries make a recovery, it will be a recovery that offers comparatively few jobs.

To survive, Ashland has to be among the best in the world at something with a future. Strong towns have to be connected to an economic network that produces something of great value that people elsewhere want; you can’t “Local Pride” your way to prosperity. Ashland excels at producing and selling healthcare services, which is a genuine bright spot for the city’s future, recent bad press notwithstanding.

But Ashland’s ability to provide educational services must expand for the city to grow, as these are very high-return services. And, frankly, while Marshall is a big university, it’s not yielding the growth dividends it should either, for its size: it doesn’t make a top 1,000 global universities list, it’s just 47th in the south (let alone the nation) according to US New & World Reports, and its engineering program, which should be stellar given the local industry cluster, is 97th. 97th! It’s not even the best-public-university-in-Appalachia, an award going to Appalachian State University.

Look, I’m not trying to throw shade here, I’m just saying that, to enjoy the economic benefits of a large university, you’ve gotta have at least a couple of world-class knowledge-centers and talent-pipelines. As much as I love it, basketball isn’t what makes UK a good university: the medical, business, agriculture, veterinary, and engineering schools are. Partly because they attract good students, and partly because they produce economically valuable research. The nexus of talent and knowledge drives startup activity, innovation, and business relocation & investment.

Likewise, the Tristate area should take advantage of its very low cost (of the 11-cheapest housing-cost metros in the nation, 7 are in West Virginia, including the Tristate Area), abundant vacant real estate, and good access to interstate and passenger rail to develop more of a tourism infrastructure, although this is a very limited industry for a small metro area. They could also try appealing to a creative, reform-minded class of nonprofits, artists, etc, as Wheeling has done. Likewise, Huntington’s food scene is already improving, and Ashland’s should follow suit as fast as possible.

A Parting Note

I’ve presented a lot of data. Its conclusion includes some fairly low-cost ways forward, like figuring out why the Tristate Area loses so many women, and other much higher-cost ways forward, like seeking a large-scale remedy to college-bound outmigration by expanding local educational opportunities. Many readers will be skeptical of the idea that Ashland or the Tristate can only be competitive if it produces a knowledge-generation and talent-production conduit.

But the truth is, even folks who want to bring new heavy industry, like aerospace, back to Ashland are responding to the exact same demand for knowledge. They’re observing that Ashland has a knowledge base that’s useful for heavy industry. The problem is that manufacturing employment is not going to grow in the future.

That chart shows US manufacturing employment. Let’s make one thing very clear: from 2010 to 2015 has been the period of fastest growth for US manufacturing since the mid-1990s. It can get worse than the last 5 years; so cities should not allow themselves to think that they’ve finally “hit bottom” in terms of manufacturing jobs. They may not have.

But to be clear, while offshoring has a role to play, US manufacturing hasn’t actually declined at all! US manufacturing is growing! Here it is in real, inflation-adjusted terms from 1929 to 2015:

It’s not that there aren’t factories anymore: it’s that those factories just don’t need as many production workers. They may need more software engineers than they used to, or more robotics technicians, but core production workers are a smaller and smaller part of the workforce.

So the Tristate area has useful knowledge! It’s just that jobs in the sector for which that knowledge is useful are getting rarer and rarer, more and more competitive. Only the absolutely most ideal locations and workers can win out. Little things like lack of access to a major airport, or executives feeling a plant is in a city they don’t enjoy visiting as much, will matter more and more as these jobs get rarer and rarer. Even if major new investments, say, in aerospace do occur, other cities will keep trying to compete for relocations, and eventually improved technology will reduce even many of those new jobs.

The Tristate, then, has basically three options for the future:

  1. Invest in an expanded service-economy infrastructure, bearing costs now, taking on some risk for the future, but hopefully creating a knowledge cluster valuable enough to sustain a small-to-middle-sized metro area.
  2. Double down on industry despite its national employment decline, perhaps scoring some investments in the medium-term, but ultimately surrendering to long-term decline as the jobs are slowly automated and competed away.
  3. Do nothing, watch welfare dependence rise even higher, even as the area’s population tumbles to still lower levels.

It’s your choice. In the meantime, Ashland’s students, women, and families are voting with their feet.

Check out my Podcast about the history of American migration.

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I’m a native of Wilmore, Kentucky, a graduate Transylvania University, and also the George Washington University’s Elliott School. My real job is as an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, where I analyze and forecast cotton market conditions. I’m married to a kickass Kentucky woman named Ruth.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I did not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research. More’s the pity.

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