Lack of jobs contributes to West Kentucky population decline

PADUCAH — For about 30 years, almost all of the west Kentucky region has seen a population decline. Paducah, Mayfield, and Fulton have all seen people migrating from their cities. Murray is the lone city to actually gain in population in recent years.

Thomas Ethridge has seen Mayfield change over the years. He moved there in 1961 and has lived there ever since. “It was a big boom,” Ethridge said. “There were options for jobs.”

That boom is no more, though. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant and other manufacturing plants used to employ thousands of people in the Jackson Purchase region. Most of them have closed, leaving behind deserted houses and neighborhoods.

“If an individual does not have a job, they are going to go where they can find that job,” says Chris Wooldridge.

Wooldridge works with the Small Business Development Center at Murray State University. He works with businesses from Owensboro all the way to Fulton. He says the lack of jobs in our region isn’t the only factor causing people to leave, but it’s definitely a big part of it.

“We have industries that are going through some kind of either maturity or decline, so as those industries right size, down size, or go away, of course that puts individuals back out in the workforce,” Wooldridge says.

People are leaving to find those new jobs. Since 1990, Paducah has lost more than 2,500 people, Mayfield has lost around 540, and Fulton more than 860 people. Census numbers project the trend will continue into 2020. The only city that has increased in population is Murray, which has added more than 4,000 people. Murray, unlike other places, has recently seen the same kind of development.

Like USEC, the General Tire Plant in Mayfield was once a large employer for the region. But, once it closed down, it took away another opportunity for jobs. Ethridge worked at the tire plant. He says driving by it now is depressing.

“Used to, that place looked like a small city with all of the lights, and now the whole building is gone except for some of the warehouses,” Ethridge says.

Robert Strong also lives in Mayfield. He says some of his friends who used to work at USEC have left the area.

“I had one friend who, he was probably one of the last ones to work there, because he worked from home remotely. And only recently, in the last couple of years, he moved to Ohio,” Strong says.

The answers to the population and jobs problem might not be simple, but Wooldridge says the state can help by fixing the pension system and taking a look at taxes.

“The businesses we work with really feel as if that tax reform is way past the time to be addressed,” says Wooldridge.

The hope is that fixing those state problems will make Kentucky and our region more attractive for businesses –all to bring in new jobs, instead of drive them away.

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