By Kate Alexander
WASHINGTON – While their overall populations grew slightly or remained stable, the number of children continued to ebb in counties at the far reaches of the state.
Over the last decade, the population under age 18 fell by 3 percent in Somerset County, 2 percent in Garrett County and 6 percent in Allegany County, according to census data released last week.
And the implications of that decline are rippling through the communities’ schools and economies.
“There is no industry to keep young people here,” said Ted Abbott Sr., a Somerset County Board of Education member until last year. “Young people don’t work here so they don’t live here and you don’t have young people having families” as a result.
Tom Lawton, Somerset County planner, said the trend has been ongoing for about 30 years, and he attributes it to an influx of retirees without children. He is not concerned by the decrease but added that it does not bode well for the schools in the county.
Few of the local officials contacted were concerned about the drops, which pale in comparison to Baltimore City’s loss of more than 18,000 residents in the under-18 group from 1990 to 2000. All other counties in the state posted increases in their young populations.
But Baltimore’s 10.3 percent decline for young people nearly mirrors the city’s overall loss of 11.5 percent of its population, according to the census. Somerset and Garrett counties saw overall population increases of about 6 percent, while Allegany County’s population stayed steady.
While the actual numbers are small in Somerset and Garrett counties — the decrease translates into less than 150 people in each county — officials were keeping an eye on the troublesome trend.
The change is more pronounced in Allegany County, where the drop represents the loss of 959 people under age 18 over the last decade, or 9 percent of the county’s total school population, according to state Board of Education figures.
The Allegany County school superintendent’s office did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment on the population shift. An Allegany County Economic Development Commission spokesman said he was not aware of the drop and would withhold comment on any economic impacts of the trend until having a chance to explore its implications further.
In Somerset County, Abbott said the declining school population has created a dire situation — fewer students lead to fewer state education dollars.
The school board last fall recommended unifying the county’s two high schools — which together house about 600 students — in order to cut costs, but the measure was defeated in a referendum in November. Now the board is considering combining the middle schools and high schools, said Washington High School Principal Louise Cheek.
Abbott suggested that the county’s biggest problem in keeping young people was a lack of jobs — one of the main reasons cited by Garrett County officials as well.
Garrett County Planning Director John Nelson said the overall population has grown because of an increasing number of older folks are retiring to their second homes in the county while the younger population leaves to seek employment.
But Nelson said that he sees that trend changing in the very near future due to several new economic opportunities moving into the county.
ClosetMaid, a wire basket manufacturer from Florida, is scheduled to move into Grantsville within the next year, bringing with it 750 new jobs, said Ken Wishnick, president of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce. He said a new sporting facility planned for Wisp Mountain will bring hundreds more new jobs.
With the new jobs, the exodus of the young is “turning around now, and I think it will be the start of bringing people in,” Wishnick said.
While the planners welcome their new growth, Somerset’s Abbott noted that the source of the county’s overall growth-retirees-also has its downfalls.
“You reach a point when it’s almost a retirement community, and then the likelihood of young people staying is even less,” Abbott said.