Parkersburg remains W.Va.’s third-largest city — for now

PARKERSBURG – The U.S. Census Bureau said Morgantown is poised to surpass Parkersburg as the state’s third-largest city, but officials say the impact – if it occurs – will be minimal as there are factors that may keep the city in its current position.

The U.S. Census Bureau released its estimates of population for municipalities as of July 1, 2012. Charleston was still the state’s largest city and Huntington remained the second largest.

Parkersburg had 31,492 residents compared to Morgantown’s 29,660, according to the 2010 census. Estimates for 2012 have Parkersburg around 31,261 people compared to Morgantown’s 31,000.

Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell had not seen the new estimates. According to the original census numbers, Morgantown is still a couple of thousand residents below Parkersburg.

“The next census is not for almost another 10 years,” he said. “It is possible they could surpass us.”

With West Virginia University in Morgantown, there are a lot of businesses and services that support the university.

Newell said anything could happen over the next few years, before the next census, that could change the rankings of the cities across the state.

“If we were to get a (ethane) cracker plant here, that would have an influence on our population numbers,” Newell said. “I really hate to speculate on anyone’s estimate.”

Cam Huffman, president and chief executive officer for the Wood County Development Authority, said Wood County remains in the running for an ethane cracker plant.

The area is being considered for the multibillion-dollar chemical processing plant. A cracker plant converts ethane, a byproduct from natural gas, into the widely used ethylene. It is a key component for the plastics industry.

The investment in the area could be $4 billion-$4.5 billion if the plant is built here.

“That alone could bring in 10,000-12,000 construction jobs for a five-year period alone,” Huffman said. “We know what the impact can be and it is still a very likely possibility.”

Huffman said the interested parties are gathering facts about the area and the authority is continuing to provide information.

Officials have said if the facility opens in Wood County, companies around the area will see increases in business from suppliers to related industries. Also, businesses and companies could be spun off from the ethane cracker to produce plastics and other materials from products produced by the plant, creating more jobs, they said.

The Bureau of Public Debt recently announced more than 400 federal jobs would be relocated from the Washington, D.C., area to Parkersburg. Although the move has been delayed until around 2019, Huffman believes those positions will eventually be coming to the area.

Companies and other businesses are continuing to look at the area, Huffman said.

Newell said local population numbers have stabilized compared to previous decades.

“We have only lost 1,200 people over a 10-year period,” he said. “In the ’80s and ’90s, we lost around 10,000.

“The last census showed we were really stabilizing compared to the decades before. We are certainly in a position for growth.”

Newell said the possible change in ranking won’t affect entitlements or community development block grant money as Parkersburg remains a Class 2 city.

Wood County Commission President Wayne Dunn said he has followed population numbers for a long time and saw Morgantown slowly gaining on Parkersburg for a while. Dunn believes the two cities are closer than ever in numbers with Morgantown poised to overtake Parkersburg in another year or so.

Dunn does not think it is inevitable the population of that area will surpass this one.

“We have so many assets,” he said.

Parkersburg has a quality geographic area with two major rivers, the Ohio and the Little Kanawha, while Morgantown has only the Monongahela River, Dunn said.

Although Morgantown has a major university, the Parkersburg area has smaller colleges. Dunn has advocated for more cooperation between the smaller schools locally to be able to compete with the larger school in creating educational opportunities to meet the requirements of hi-tech business needs in the future.

Dunn said steps are being taken to improve the environment, which can eventually improve West Virginia’s standing nationwide. The state regularly ranks low on health concerns.

“We need to correct that,” he said. “We could be a much nicer place to live.”

Job development is important, but it has to be the right kind of jobs that take advantage of emerging business opportunities in high-tech fields, he said.

“It is not a case of ‘what will be, will be,”‘ Dunn said. “We will decide ‘what will be.”‘