Editor's note: This is the first article in a two-part series discussing population decline in Hopkins County.

Over the past nine years, the population in Hopkins County has dropped from 46,830 to 45,068.

As a whole, the county has lost 1,772 residents since '09, with Madisonville accounting for 57% of that decline. An estimated 1,004 people have moved from the city as its population has decreased from 19,837 to 18,833 as of 2018, according to census population estimates.

The decline in the community's population has been gradual -- losing 0.75% of its population annually for the last five years, according to reports.

"Some of it has to do with changes in the coal mine industry. We were such a large coal manufacturing region," said Hopkins County Regional Chamber of Commerce President Leslie Curneal. "I think that has some factor, but there are multiple spokes to this wheel."

The economy in the area has shifted from coal mining to manufacturing, said Ray Hagerman, president of the Madisonville-Hopkins County Economic Development Corporation.

"There has been a change in the economy over the last 10 years," he said. "There have been mine closures, there have been layoffs in the coal industry, and you've seen a shakeout in that industry."

Though coal has declined for most of the region, Hagerman said the result is a redirection towards other industries.

"I think a good number of people did actually leave whenever coal jobs went away, and we're in the process of repopulating," he said. "It's not that there's a matter of there aren't enough jobs available, they're just not jobs in that industry."

The economic development corporation is trying to create opportunities for people who have lost their jobs to find work. For example, their website, hopkinscokyjobs.com, lists no less than 60 companies with available positions.

"The onus is on them to try to make themselves available for those jobs," Hagerman said. "It's everybody's responsibility to make sure that they have the skills and capabilities to be employed."

Hopkins County's unemployment rate for September was listed at just 3.7%, which is slightly below the state average of 3.8%

Each year, the economic development corporation hosts two annual job fairs. Hagerman said that between the two fairs this year, there were less than 250 people in attendance.

"There were well over 500 jobs that were available right at the fair. Either people aren't taking advantage of them, or some of those people might have moved off and not moved back because they found employment somewhere else," he said. "We probably, at any given time, in this community have 1,000 jobs that are going unfilled because there just aren't enough people."

Though the county's population seems to be declining, the chamber says its membership numbers have been steady with over 200 businesses listed. Curneal said she is learning the ebbs and flows of when members leave and when new companies come in.

"It's a natural progression all chambers go through -- businesses close, new businesses open -- it's a natural thing that happens in every community," she said. "Our membership numbers tell us that things are holding steady."

Chamber membership numbers may be steady, but per census data, there was a 1.3% decline in employment throughout the county. Where the county is succeeding is its shift towards manufacturing and health care, said Hagerman.

"Manufacturing and healthcare are far and away our larger employer segment," he said. "The economic mix here, in Hopkins County, is changing."

With the 2020 census approaching, Hagerman said that we might see a downward trend in the area's population from 2010 to 2020. However, he thinks the most important thing the community needs to look at is the last couple of years. He is curious to know if the decline happened at a lesser rate in the past year.

"There are so many factors that go into (the decline), the mass exodus of young people to metro areas that has happened in the last 10 years, that affects almost every sort of rural community," he said. "That, coupled with downturns in primary industries like coal, in areas like ours, would be a sort of lethal cocktail for seeing population decline."

Currently, there are a lot of things happening between the economic development corporation, chamber, tourism, city and county that will help grow the community, said Curneal.

"All of those players are so important in the process of trying to grow the community and attract people here," she said. "One thing that we, at the chamber, are working on is creating a data packet that would show our demographics at a glance to real estate brokers that may be dealing with specific franchise restaurants or retail stores."

The chamber's goal is not to recruit competition for their members, but to find ways to fill in gaps.

"We want to find what gaps are here, what dollars are leaving our community, what do people go to Evansville and Nashville to shop for that we might bring here, and they don't have to leave," Curneal said.

Currently, economic development is partnering with Fort Campbell to recruit retiring service people to work in our community. They are also working with the Hopkins County Jail to train inmates and prepare them to join the workforce after incarceration and they are working with entrepreneurs.

Through the Kentucky Rise Program offered at economic development's Innovation Station, they provide free resources for start-ups and entrepreneurs.

"We find that in a rural community, like ours, where we're not remote, but we're also not in a major metro area, that there's a lot of entrepreneurial talent," said Hagerman. "There's a lot of people that just given the right resources, can be successful."

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