Whitesburg KY
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Population losses here appear to be between 13 & 29%

Census figures are dribbling out, and it seems the population here is dwindling down.

The latest figures from the Census Bureau held a surprise for city mayors here. According to the count done last spring, the population of all cities in Letcher County and the county itself fell by 13 to 29 percent from 2010.

Jenkins, which traditionally has had the largest population of any city in Letcher County, managed to hold onto that lead, but only just. According to the count released this month, Jenkins lost 301 people, or 13.6 percent of its population. Whitesburg lost 366 people or 17.1 percent of its population.

Fleming-Neon fared the worst with a loss of 222 people, 28.8 percent of the population. That leaves the town with just 548 residents,

While they didn’t dispute the numbers, the mayors of Jenkins and Neon were at a loss for words when they learned of the numbers.

“I just don’t know what to say about what I think it is. I think that’s low, yes,” Fleming-Neon Mayor Susie Polis said.

She checked the city’s water department to find out how many households are in the city. The number she came up with, 260, is just seven more than the Census figure of 253.

“We don’t know how many people are in those houses, I know there’s three in mine,” she said.

In Jenkins, Mayor Todd Depriest said also declined to dispute the numbers directly, but said he knows of at least four houses in town that he thought would never sell that sold and are now occupied. He said there are a lot of empty houses, but many have been empty for years. He said he could not figure out where 301 people left from or went to. The loss leaves an official population of 1,902, down from 2,203 in 2010.

“If I had to explain where 300 people went to, I can’t explain it,” he said.

Depriest said seven people just moved to the city from California, but that was after the Census was taken. Others have also moved in, buying houses they find online, Depriest said, adding that “I can’t wrap my mind around where that many people went.”

“If you average it out, you’d have to lose 100 and some homes, or there should be 100 and some vacant houses. Where is that hole at? I think they had a hard time catching up with people,” Depriest said.

In Whitesburg, the population figures show the city is down to 1,773 from 2,139 in 2010. That is the lowest since 1990, when the population was 1,636.

Whitesburg Mayor Tiffany Craft did not return phone calls or text messages.

The Census figures also show the racial makeup of the cities changing, though some question whether the change in Census numbers truly reflects what is happening.

In Jenkins, the Black population fell to 12 from 16, while the bi-racial (Black/ white) population increased to 5 from 2, and the number of people identifying as Native American or Alaska Native/white increased to 20 from just 2. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population increased to 30 from 26, according to the Census.

In Fleming-Neon, there are no Hispanic persons listed, down from 2 in 2016, and 13 Blacks, down from 16.

In Whitesburg, those numbers were opposite. The number of Black residents is counted as increasing to 25 from 13 and the number of Hispanics increasing to 29 from 11. The number of biracial individuals (Black/ white) is now listed as 8, up from 2, and the number of Native American or Alaska Native/white persons is now listed as 16, up from 3 in 2010.

Steve Peake, who is pastor of two traditionally Black churches in Fleming-Neon and in Pike County, said there are fewer than 10 Black people left in Fleming Neon, and only two he is aware of in Jenkins. He chuckled at the number 25 given for Whitesburg.

“That’s fudging it on 25. It could be, but it’s doubtful,” Peake said.

With COVID, he said his church services are being held by conference call, and there are very few people left.

“When we have church, it’s a Black church, but if we don’t have somebody white come out, we don’t have many people at all,” he said.

Countywide, the Census figures reflect the mostly steady decline in population over the past 80 years. The county population now is just 21,548, down from 24,519.

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