CHESTERTOWN — The estimated population of Kent County is 19,422 as of July 1, 2019, according to the United States Census Bureau.
That is down 3.8% from the 20,195 population estimate base from April 1, 2010.
The population count in 2020 was 19,198. That is a 4.9% decrease from the 2010 population count, 20,197.
“There wasn’t anything about the latest census data that’s been released that has surprised me,” said Sam Shoge, executive director of the Kent County Chamber of Commerce in a phone interview last month. “I anticipated a decline and that census data definitely reflects pre-COVID, pre-pandemic, what everybody has been experiencing. We all kind of saw it in small ways throughout our everyday life what that overall decline actually looked like. So, here we are.”
This is the first time since the 1940 census that the total population in Kent County has decreased.
Chestertown is the only municipality with breakout census data for Kent County, showing a population of 5,051. The minimum threshold for a town to be shown on the census website is a population of 5,000.
Like the county, the census reports a 4.2% decrease in the Chestertown population. The 2010 figures show an estimated population in the county seat of 5,271.
It is important to remember the census was conducted in April 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kent County Commissioner Bob Jacob served on the county’s Economic Development Board for seven years before his election in 2018.
“Halfway through being on the economic board we decided that the county would be healthier, more robust, if we could set it on the path to increase the population by 5,000 people,” Jacob said at the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday.
Jacob said the census data shows that “our policies are not putting us in that direction.”
“Redoing the ordinances and the planning and zoning is very important because we can’t continue to shrink, we can’t continue to be a weekend destination,” he said. “I really think we need to look at putting some policies in place so we can grow. We don’t want to grow tremendously, but I think we need to go in that direction a little bit more than we currently are.”
President of the Commissioners Tom Mason said there were “too many restrictions in that zoning that end up hurting us,” including those that prevent the purchase of smaller portions of land for agriculture use and the inability to have more drive-thru restaurants in the county.
Shoge attributed much of the decline to those children who grow up in Kent County and move away upon graduation. He said they are not being replaced by other families with children.
“And then you also have an aging population,” he said. “So not only are we dealing with children who graduate and leave and they’re not being replaced by families with other children, but the average median age in the county is going up.”
According to the census data, the median age in the county is 48.1 years old.
Commissioner Ron Fithian said it was difficult for young people to find jobs in Kent County that will pay them enough so they can afford to build a house.
“It’s been a struggle all my life and it’s not getting any easier,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of professional jobs here where people are going to come to Kent County and get a job making $100,000 a year where they can go build a house, raise a family. The job opportunities aren’t here like they are in some places.”
While young people and families building affordable housing and finding high-paying jobs in Kent County seems unlikely, the real estate market as of late has been booming.
Kent County is ranked third in the state for locations where people have second homes. This, however, does not add to the county’s revenue as their income tax revenue does not come here.
“The price of land here in this county, because it is such a beautiful place with the waterfronts — the price of the real estate has skyrocketed and the jobs haven’t kept up,” Fithian said. “The only reason families are going to come here is if they see a future here, a job, something so they can support a family. That to me has got to come first.”
Shoge, however, said he believes “you need to bring the people before you can bring the jobs” because the logistics are a little bit easier.
Shoge cited the U.S. Route 301 bypass in Middletown, Del. as a way for people from Kent County to get to Wilmington, Del. and Philadelphia, Pa. faster, which he said will help facilitate the relocation of people into the county.
“They have access to the metro areas where the jobs are actually growing. They have opportunities to spread out and buy a home for hopefully less money and they are in a nice quiet and safe area and they have quick and convenient access to employment in the metro area. And we have a lot of factors working for us,” he said.
The Tourism and Economic Development Commission will be discussing what the population decline means for Kent County and more at their next meeting 3 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10.
“I don’t want to make it sound like we as commissioners have given up. We want to see Kent County thrive,” Mason said.
“What Kent County is experiencing is nothing new. In fact, most rural counties across the entire country are facing the same demographic issues as Kent County,” Shoge said. “It’s nothing new, what we’re experiencing.”
Director of Tourism and Economic Development Jamie Williams and Shoge both said they would like to see what the data would look like now after the real estate boom because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While census data and statistics are still forthcoming, the available data can be found on the Census Bureau website at www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/dashboard/kentcountymaryland.