Washington County, long one of the poorest counties in Maine, continues to struggle to keep its residents after its population has declined by more than 5 percent in the past decade.
Overall, the district’s population shrank by more than 1,700 between 2010 and 2020, according to the recently published census data for 2020. A decade ago, the district had 32,856 inhabitants and last year 31,095, the lowest population in the last 50 years.
The continuing lack of economic opportunity in the county has been the main driver of the county’s population decline since 1990, said two Washington County officials – one a county commissioner and port director and the other with a nonprofit economic development group. The county’s aging population is dying of natural causes, and not enough young people remain in the county to make up for this loss.
“There aren’t enough children to replace the dead,” said Charles Rudelitch, executive director of Sunrise County Economic Council. “This is the result of decades of trends.”
The population losses in and around Baileyville, where one of the half-dozen remaining paper mills in the state still employs 400 people, was relatively high. Crawford, Princeton, and Meddybemps each lost between 10 and 11 percent of their populations, Baileyville lost 13 percent, while Baring lost 20 percent. Calais – the largest parish in Washington County’s population of more than 3,000 – lost less than 2 percent of its population.
Rudelitch said the mill had been one of the county’s economic bright spots for the past decade. Before that, however, steadily declining employment levels and then uncertainty about the future of the plant in the 2000s contributed to the brain drain of the region. With other Maine factories closed and commutes lengthened, the factory may have a higher percentage of employees living outside of Washington County than it used to, he said.
Despite the county’s ongoing population decline, five small inland towns had double-digit population growth rates, while four more grew between 5 and 9 percent. But the 185 people these nine cities gained – plus another three dozen or so scattered across a few other cities – don’t matter compared to a population loss ten times as large.
Several coastal cities also saw significant population decreases.
Addison, Jonesport, and Lubec – each with about 1,200 residents – each lost 9 percent of their population, while Cherryfield, Columbia, and Perry each lost about 10 percent. Beals, Columbia Falls, Dennysville, and Machiasport each lost between about 12 and 15 percent of their residents. Machias, the county’s second largest parish with 2,000 residents, lost more than 7 percent and Whitneyville lost 8 percent.
Four very small towns on state highways leading away from the coast towards Route 9 grew by between 20 and 30 percent. In total, Beddington, Deblois, Northfield and Wesley have gained 81 residents since 2010.
There has been a noticeable increase in weekly vacation rentals in the county’s coastal towns, which may be the reason some inland towns have seen slight populations, said Chris Gardner, chairman of the Washington County Commission and executive director of the Eastport Port Authority. Instead of leaving the county, some residents may only move 10 or 20 miles further from the coast.
“You’re seeing a surge in property values along the coast,” Gardner said, adding that summer residents from other states are also increasing housing demand. “There aren’t many empty houses in Eastport and new houses are being built.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Gardner said, Eastport and other communities in the county were promoting as places where people could move and keep jobs online. The 2020 census figures may already be out of date as demand for homes in Washington County has increased since last summer after the census was conducted.
“Washington County’s real estate market is on fire,” Gardner said. “I think it could be a different story if the census had been taken later.”
Washington County’s three-month May-July home sales were nearly 30 percent higher this year than the same period last year, according to figures released Monday by the Maine Association of Realtors. The average retail price also rose to $ 160,000 during that period from $ 127,100 a year ago.
Despite the teleworkers and vacationers, Gardner said there needs to be more economic development in Washington County year round to prevent younger people from leaving the country.
“We have to find a balance,” he said. “Tourism jobs don’t pay a lot of bills in February.”