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April 11, 2013

Johnstown Penn. among nation's fastest shrinking cities

Danville Ill. and Joplin Mo. also make the list

JOHNSTOWN — Johnstown’s population is dropping at a faster pace than almost any other metropolitan statistical area in the United States.

According to figures recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the MSA, which encompasses all of Cambria County, suffered an estimated  seven-tenths of a percent population drop – 142,624 people to 141,584 – during a 12-month period that ended on July 1, 2012. The loss was tied for fifth-sharpest, among the nation’s 381 areas, with East Stroudsburg and Binghamton, N.Y.

The four cities on the fastest decline were Pine Bluff, Ark. (-1.5 percent), Joplin, Mo. (-1.3), Flint, Mich. (-0.9) and Danville, Ill. (-0.8).

“It’s never good to be on a list like that,” said Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce President Robert Layo.

Population loss is nothing new for the region.

Approximately 190,000 people lived in Cambria County when the 1977 flood hit and played a major role in creating a poor economic climate and mass population exodus. From the 1920s through the 1950s, when the domestic steel manufacturing industry was booming, more than 60,000 people lived in Johnstown. And, in actuality, a seven-tenths decline is small compared with some decades in which drops of 10 percent-plus occurred.

“I don’t think it’s something that happened in the past year or past two years,” said Cambria County Commissioner Thomas Chernisky. “It was something that happened the last 20, 25 years. ... As long as it took to decline, it may take that long to recover.”

Losing population negatively impacts communities that need to fund projects, including infrastructure, with a shrinking tax base.

Johnstown adopted a $31.4 million budget this year with no tax increase.

More than $8 million was set aside for sewer work, as the city has undertaken a major project to upgrade its aging system.

“Basically, we have to buy what we can afford. ... We’ve got to live within our means,” said city Councilman Frank Janakovic.

Government legacy costs also are impacted by population declines. Currently, the city is paying pension benefits to 252 retirees, while only

139 active employees are contributing to the fund. The pension program is only 49 percent funded. It would need a $20 million injection to make it sound for 30 years.

“Of course that’s a burden, your pension obligation,” said Johnstown Mayor Tom Trigona. “There’s nothing you can do about that.”

Public officials, organization leaders and citizens have tried to stop the decline by promoting the area’s low cost of living, small-town atmosphere and outdoors activities, along with quality-of-life events, such as Thunder in the Valley, All American Amateur Baseball Association National Tournament, Johnstown Symphony Orchestra concerts and Flood City Music Festival.

“There are a ton of reasons why to pick the city of Johnstown to live in,” said Cambria-Somerset Association of Realtors President Ginger Jakubowski.

Even with the population plunge, Johns-town still features the Cambria County War Memorial Arena, Point Stadium, CamTran bus terminal, Peoples Natural Gas Park and almost a dozen restaurants within a few blocks of City Hall. “If you look at that, we still have a pretty vibrant downtown,” said Trigona.

Promoting job growth is another part of trying to stop the population drain.

The city’s unemployment rate has remained above 10 percent for much of the past four years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Johnstown and Cambria County have lower median household incomes and higher poverty rates than Pennsylvania as a whole.

Janakovic, executive director of Alternative Community Resource Program, feels part of the problem can be addressed by having school districts tailor education programs to jobs in the area, like medical training to work at Conemaugh Health System and skills for blue-collar positions at places such as JWF Industries. “My suggestion is that we first look at the education system and gear the education to where we need it in the future,” Janakovic said.

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