Pennsylvania county, second-oldest and smallest, a 'hidden gem' weathering the pandemic

Recent data from the Census Bureau shows that Pennsylvania’s median age, 40.9, is higher than the national average of 38.8.

A higher median age doesn’t mean a state will struggle to grow economically or in population – Florida and New Hampshire are older yet growing – but it can present some challenges.

The oldest counties in Pennsylvania tend to be some of the smallest. The oldest, Sullivan County, has a median age of 55.2 and 5,868 people. Cameron County is second with a median age of 52.8 and 4,459 people. Forest County is third with a median age of 49.3 and 7,032 people.

But a smaller, older population has its benefits, too. The counties weathered the pandemic, and arguably better than most.

Cameron County had the fewest cases and deaths from COVID-19, County Commissioner Chair Lori Reed said. The county reported 880 cases and 21 deaths from COVID-19.

“Most older people rushed to get vaccines,” Reed said.

The rural nature of the county gave it another boost during the pandemic: the extra space attracted new residents.

“House sales skyrocketed,” she said. “During COVID, we really were inundated with a lot of people."

That experience tracks with what researchers have found elsewhere. A study from Penn State University noted almost half of adults do some form of outdoor recreation on a monthly basis, and 20% of those were new to it during the pandemic.

Cameron and Sullivan counties, and Forest County to a lesser extent, have another commonality: significant payouts from natural gas and fracking.

Cameron County has received just under $1.5 million from the Act 13 impact fee since 2017, according to data from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, and Sullivan County has received $5.6 million since 2011.

While the natural gas fees have helped, the county has losses in manufacturing, Reed said. Population decline has also been steady; except for a 1% increase in the 2000 census, Cameron County has lost population since 1960, when it had almost 7,600 residents. The 2010 census noted a 15% decline and the 2020 census noted an 11% decline. It's too early to tell whether the pandemic-induced spike will lead to growth in the next census.

Unsurprisingly, health care access is more limited: residents must routinely travel 25 miles or more for treatment. Funding emergency medical services is also “a huge issue here,” Reed said.

Despite those challenges, the effects of the pandemic have given some hope for growth. “We want to grow, but slowly,” Reed said. The county has also hired a new marketing director to work with the Office of Community and Economic Development to promote the area as a tourism destination.

“We’re the safest county in the state but also the most beautiful,” Reed said. “It’s absolutely gorgeous here.”

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