Sunday, April 15, 2001

Mountain towns shedding people

Census charts drops over decades

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

        ALLEN, Ky. — Newly hired Police Chief Rick Newsome plans to go door to door to introduce himself to residents here.

        “It shouldn't take more than half a day,” he mused.

        As Chief Newsome talked, a long-eared dog ambled across a nearby lawn and plopped down for a nap beneath the warm spring sun. Just down the street, a toddler giggled as she padded through a mud puddle.

[photo] In Allen, population 150, Allison Slusher, 5, and her sister Victoria, 2, play with their dog Blackie in the road in front of their house.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
        It's midday and little else is stirring in Allen, a typical small eastern Kentucky town that has never had a secure grip on a claim to fame.

        Until now.

        Census data released last month showed Allen has continued losing population through the past decade, making it one of the most shrinking cities in the Kentucky mountains over the past 30 years.

        The U.S. Census Bureau, in its population counts, reported that Allen lost nearly 35 percent of its population in the 1990s. That followed a loss of 47 percent in the 1980s and 53 percent in the 1970s. No other city in the region has matched the sustained loss. Allen now has 150 people.

        “I'm not really surprised, because there's nothing to keep people tied here,” said Judy Fields, owner of an Allen wallpaper store that depends on customers from adjacent towns to keep afloat.

        “Everybody is going away,” said resident Patricia Slusher. “Jobs are so scarce people don't have any choice but to move.”

        That's the case in many small eastern Kentucky cities, where sharp population declines were reported. In Harlan County, which is largely dependent on the coal industry for employment, seven towns lost population in the past decade. Loyal was hardest hit with a 30 percent decline.

        Nearby Hyden, the only incorporated town in Leslie County, declined by more than 45 percent, from 375 to 204. And in Owsley County, the city of Booneville lost more than 52 percent of its residents, going from a population of 232 in 1990 to 111 in 2000.

        Officials in some of those towns contend the shrinkage is more the result of a faulty count than people moving away or dying.

        “We really are wondering if the census is accurate,” said Booneville City Administrator Ronnie Callahan. “We are really small, one square mile, if not less. But we've not had that great a population change.”

        Ewell Balltrip, director of the Kentucky Appalachian Commission, said people moving to larger cities for work is one factor in the population declines in the region's cities.

        “We are having smaller families, and that certainly is another contributing factor,” he said.

        In Allen, Mayor Sharon Woods contends that everyone wasn't counted.

        “I didn't even get a form to fill out, so I know I'm not counted,” she said.

        Others agree with her.

        “I would be surprised if there were only 150 people in Allen,” said Tony Childers, assistant principal at Allen Elementary School. “But I couldn't dispute that.”

        The school has 515 pupils, most of whom ride buses in from a wide swath of rural southern Floyd County.

        Mr. Childers said the accepted population count for the city of Allen is about 400 people. He claims the city has never had 724 residents, as was reported by the census in 1970, leaving him to believe that census takers have gradually narrowed the area they consider Allen.

        “The Census Bureau would use whatever boundaries that the city has indicated,” said Ron Crouch, director of the Kentucky State Data Center. “They would not change it arbitrarily. They use the same boundaries from decade to decade.”

        Mr. Crouch said the census figures showed that people are having fewer children in the Appalachian region, and that might explain losses of population in many eastern Kentucky cities.

        “It's just not five or six kids anymore,” he said. “People are having one or two kids.”

        Ms. Slusher said that appears to be the case in Allen. She said her three children are among only a handful in Allen now.

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