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Johnstown Area Third Fastest Shrinking City In The U.S.


Johnstown has taken the bronze medal in a race no one wants to win  — the country's fastest shrinking cities. The Johnstown metro region, which includes all of Cambria County, lost 5.5 percent of its population since 2011.

According to the research group 24/7 Wall Street, that's the third fastest rate of decline after Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Farmington, New Mexico. 

Johnstown City Manager Arch Liston was surprised to hear that the city was so far down the list — but the numbers didn't shock him. 

"I knew we were declining at about that rate," he said. "But I didn't know we were doing that badly" compared to everyone else.

Though the Rust Belt is heavily represented on 24/7 Wall Street's list, Johnstown is the only Pennsylvania city. (Though, to be fair, the Youngstown, Ohio metro region, which came in 14th, does stretch into Pennsylvania.) 

Johnstown's unemployment rate is at 7.3 percent, greater than the state average of 5.3 percent, and the poverty rate is more than double the state average — 35 percent versus 13 percent. 

Both the city and Cambria County have populations that are significantly older than the rest of the state. 

"We're seeing people dying," said Liston. "I know I have at least a couple hundred houses that are vacant just because people have passed away and there's no one else" to buy them. 

That creates a real challenge for the city. 

"Our biggest fear is we aren't able to collect taxes on the houses and then our collection rate and revenue rate falls from that side which puts the burden on everyone else in the community."

Higher taxes can drive away potential home buyers or push homeowners into foreclosure. But the city needs to pay the bills, with or without the support of a robust tax base. 

And the problem isn't likely going away any time soon — Liston says the city projects similar population decline for at least the next few years. 

Disappearing, or on the cusp of a comeback?

Despite these negative trends, many think that the small Western Pennsylvania city is on the edge of something great. 

"The recession didn't hit Johnstown for a few years after it hit larger cities," said Linda Thomson, president of JARI, the region's economic development agency. "But we were the last into the recession, so we're the last out. We're just starting to see economic activity pick up, we're starting to see people looking at industrial sites again, we're starting to see companies from outside the area look at our region again." 

Thomson hopes that momentum will help Johnstown jumpstart its economy. The region has ties to federal defense spending, which will likely see a boost under President Donald Trump's proposed budget, and the coal and natural gas industry. 

"The region just has so much to offer," says Thomson. "The natural beauty, the proximity to a major city, the affordable housing. We just need people to come and take advantage of what Johnstown has to offer." 

Eleanor Klibanoff was WPSU's reporter for Keystone Crossroads, a statewide reporting collaboration that covers the problems and solutions facing Pennsylvania's cities. Previously, Eleanor was a Kroc Fellow at NPR in DC. She worked on the global health blog and Weekend Edition, reported for the National desk and spent three months at member station KCUR in Kansas City. Before that, she covered abortion politics in Nicaragua and El Salvador, two of the seven countries in the world that completely ban the procedure. She's written for Atlanta Magazine, The Nicaragua Dispatch and Radio Free Europe.