The shrinking counties of the Lone Star State

75 Texas counties declined in population between 2022 and 2023.

By Sean SaldanaApril 22, 2024 9:00 am,

CROCKETT COUNTY – Out in Ozona, Ruben Cruz talked about the American Dream.

“I was raised in Acuña, so my English was not real good,” he said. “Now they’re paying us to talk on a microphone.”

Cruz is a self-employed rodeo announcer who travels around the U.S. for work. He recently hosted the 2024 Tuff Hedeman Tour in El Paso, where he was allowed to do a bilingual broadcast.

“One of the first companies to pretty much give me the freedom to talk English and Spanish whenever I wanted,” he explained. “And I think it was a hit.”

A man poses indoor for a photo. He's wearing several traditional Texas wear, including a cowboy hat, large belt buckle, and cowboy boots. This is Ruben Cruz.

Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

Bilingual rodeo announcer Ruben Cruz moved to Ozona in the late 1990s. Over the years, he has watched the small community shrink even further.

Cruz first moved to Ozona in the late 1990s.

“My dad came over with the oil field when I was in high school,” he said. “The oil field was booming.”

Ozona sits somewhere on I-10 between Austin and El Paso and is the main population center for Crockett County, a place with just under 3,000 people. 

Since Cruz has been here, it’s only gotten smaller.

“Kids are making their lives in the bigger cities compared to staying back home,” explained Cruz.

Crockett County is one of the fastest shrinking counties by population in Texas. There are many more.

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Triangular growth and the shrinking counties

Texas adds more than a thousand residents every single day. In the places people are relocating to, this is a boost to the economy. 

But Texas is massive.

“The growth in population’s not evenly distributed across the state,” said Helen You, with the Texas Demographic Center (TDC).

When people move to the Lone Star State, they generally relocate to what demographers and researchers refer to as The Texas Triangle, the geographical area formed by the state’s large metros.

The region – formed loosely by Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio-Austin – is home to 68% of Texans and more than 30 million people.

Spaceboyjosh, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

“These are also centers of economic development,” You said. “This is also where you see universities and lots of educational opportunities there.”

Then there are counties in the Panhandle, out west, and in South Texas. With some exceptions in Permian Basin counties and certain areas around the border, much of rural Texas is seeing gradual declines in population.

“Depending on which data you’re looking at, around half or sometimes more than half of the 254 counties have lost their population,” explained You.

According to the TDC, 75 of the state’s counties shrank in population between 2022 and 2023. This trend could present a problem for rural Texas.

“At some point, some counties are going to get so small where it’s going to be difficult for them to function,” said economist William Chittenden. “You have to have some critical mass just to support, for example, a local grocery store, a local gas station, hopefully a bank.”

Chittenden is president and CEO of the Southwestern Graduate School of Banking and he’s spent the past decade or so thinking about the economic impact of all these shrinking counties.

“I think there are things that smaller counties can do,” Chittenden said. “If they haven’t already, start working on high speed internet infrastructure.”

Last year, the Texas Legislature allocated $1.5 billion to expanding broadband access across the state, according to reporting by the Texas Tribune. 

“If you have a high speed internet connection,” said Chittenden, “it doesn’t really matter if you’re in Bexar County in San Antonio or way up in the Panhandle.”

Ozona: ‘Everybody knows everybody here’

Named after a Texas revolutionary, Crockett County does not have any cities, meaning that all government functions are carried out by county officials.

The main population center is the unincorporated community called Ozona.

“It’s a great place to raise a family,” said Marianne Maskill. “Everybody knows everybody here.”

Maskill is a receptionist with the Ozona Chamber of Commerce, an organization with 240 members that promotes businesses in the area. 

On the day she was interviewed, the Chamber was hosting an all-day open house.

A woman poses indoors for a photo. To the left of her are shelves lined with travel brochures.

Sean Saldana / Texas Standard

Ozona Chamber of Commerce receptionist Marianne Maskill. Maskill was born and raised in Ozona.

“It is basically for our members to come in and just see what we’ve got going on,” said Maskill. 

Crockett County’s population peaked in the late 1980s at around 5,000. 

Since 2020, Crockett County has lost 238 residents, 7.7% of its total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which is why today there are just under 3,000 people in the state’s eighth largest county by land area.

“Our younger adults are also moving to bigger cities,” said Maskill. “They don’t want to stay in Ozona. What is there to do for them here?” 

Maskill has watched a lot of this migration happen within West Texas.

“People are moving to San Angelo, they’re moving to Midland, they’re moving to Odessa,” she said. “They’re moving to maybe San Antonio.”

The TDC projects that by 2060, the population in Crockett County could sink as low as 1,430.

An empty warehouse sits in Crockett County.

The Ozona Chamber sees the population decline in the area as just a trend.

“I believe we have more members now than we did ten years ago,” said Maskill. “So that’s a positive.”

It’s not the only positive. The unemployment rate in Crockett County is 3.9%, which means that jobs are relatively easy to find, and the average weekly wage is just under $1,000.

But shrinking populations are seen as a problem by economists like William Chittenden, because the two things that grow local economies are workers and increases in productivity. 

“If counties continue to lose population, then by definition their economies are going to shrink unless they have some magical increase in productivity,” Chittenden explained.

Right now, Crockett County has a civilian labor force of 1,510 people and the largest industry is Accommodation and Food Services, employing nearly 192 people, according to Texas Workforce Commission data.

“I-10 goes right through Ozona,” said Maskill. “And there’s several hotels-motels right off [the highway].”

Stretching more than 2,000 miles and connecting United States East to West, I-10 provides some baseline level of traffic through the area.

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For parts of Texas easily connected to major highways, this is a silver lining.

Because Crockett County is out in West Texas, the second largest industry is mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction, which employs 176 workers.

“There are a lot of pump jacks around town,” said Maskill.

Crockett County also has several trucking companies, making transportation and warehousing the third largest employer in the area with 152 workers.

In places like Ozona, there are jobs, a sense of community, and an average annual salary among all occupations of $47,862.

But shrinking populations mean that certain parts of Texas are losing potential workers and business owners, because if a local resident wants to attend a university and make themselves competitive in the job market, they have to move.

Cities just have more opportunities.

Making a living ‘in the middle of nowhere’

In the Ozona Chamber’s conference room, Russell Crenwelge talks about rural life.

“You have to like it to live out here,” he said. “But the trick is to try to figure out how to make a living out in the middle of nowhere.”

Russell Crenwelge has been in Ozona for 24 years and is co-owner of Triple C Hardware and Lumber.

As somebody who runs a business in a place where the number of potential clients is shrinking, Crenwelge and others in the Ozona business community have adopted a more collaborative mindset.

“We all kind of try to work together,” he explained. “ It doesn’t make sense for two of us to be selling the same thing, and then neither one of us make any money.”

The day he was interviewed, Crenwelge and Triple C were awarded Business of the Year by the Ozona Chamber of Commerce.

During his brief acceptance speech, the hardware store owner announced a merger.

“We’re combining the General Store and Triple C together,” Crenwelge told the crowd of about a dozen. “We hope that by deer season, it’s kind of our goal to have all that done.”

Even in the state’s shrinking counties, the spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and well.

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