Walmart is in the process of closing its store in Big Stone Gap, and the low-priced Save-A-Lot grocery in Appalachia closed June 22. The Appalachia store has been a Priceless supermarket and IGA grocery before its latest incarnation, and it is the only supermarket in town. Two other convenience stores and a Dollar General Store selling some packaged and frozen or refrigerated food items are open on the opposite end of town.
Aside from Walmart, Food City and Bob’s Market — all in Big Stone Gap — the closest grocery store for Appalachia residents is 20 minutes away in Norton. A smaller grocery outlet would be all but guaranteed a good business, and let’s hope the town gets one to replace Save-A-Lot.
It does not bode well for Southwest Virginia that every city and county in the region lost population over the past eight years. Buchanan has been hit hardest with a 10.5 percent drop in population between 2010 and 2018 to 21,576 residents, according to recent U.S. Census data. Dickenson dropped 8.7 percent to 14,516 residents; Lee, 6.2 percent to 23,994; Russell, 6.4 percent to 27,057; Scott, 4.6 percent to 21,121; Smyth, 5.4 to 30,475; Tazewell, 6.9 to 41,973; Washington, 1.6 to 53,992; Wise, 7.4 to 38,386; and Wythe, 2.0 to 28,6750.
Bristol lost 5.4 percent of its population over that period, and Norton, 1.3. In all, that represents a loss of about 46,000 residents from the 10-county region, and that is significant. It means less money is flowing into the local economy, which results in store closings and retail relocations, which increases pressure for residents to relocate.
It’s mainly due to the collapse of the coal industry, which drove Southwest Virginia economics for more than a century. While there has been some resurgence under President Trump and some mines have reopened, coal is a dying industry, and production is but half what it was a decade ago.
The GO Virginia Council, a group of business and educational leaders charged with developing growth and diversification plans for each part of the state, reported nearly two years ago that Southwest Virginia was in deep trouble, bordering on regional collapse. The report found that it’s going to be difficult to recruit new industries because companies will not want to go where the work force is shrinking. It’s going to be difficult to retain existing industries because even they may find it challenging to find enough workers. And it’s going to be difficult to grow new homegrown industries because entrepreneurs have lots of other options besides a region where the population is in decline.
The council found through a survey that nearly one-quarter of the region’s population were thinking about moving away, and it now appears that exodus has begun.
These counties need help, and the state should focus on delivering it, doing all it can to heavily promote the region, assist in locating new jobs in the region, and assist businesses to keep them here. Southwest Virginia has always seen itself as the forgotten part of the state. It’s well past time the state corrected that image with action. And there’s little time to lose.