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Mecklenburg’s next million comes faster

By Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten
Taylor Batten is The Observer's editorial page editor.

Horns won’t blow and balloons won’t drop, but Mecklenburg County will hit a significant milestone on Thursday.

According to Charlotte Chamber research director Andrew Bowen, that’s the day that Mecklenburg’s population, after 251 years, will hit 1 million. OK, Bowen concedes, it might not be Thursday, but it’s sometime right around now.

There’s nothing magic about 1 million people, I suppose, even if only about 40 out of 3,000 U.S. counties are that large. It’s a symbol, though, a stark reminder of the Charlotte region’s explosive growth over the past several decades. It should nudge us to appreciate anew both how fortunate we are to live in a healthy, flourishing area – and how much that growth will demand of us going forward. That’s a timely poke, with voters going to the polls in November to decide on a half-billion dollars worth of bonds.

First, a bit more on how Bowen pegged Thursday as the million moment. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated Mecklenburg’s population as being 969,031 in July 2012. The July 2013 estimate has not been released, but Bowen puts it around 995,000, using the average monthly growth from the 2010 census to the 2012 estimate. Converting it to a daily growth rate, Bowen says, puts Mecklenburg over the 1 million mark on or around this Thursday.

You don’t have to work at the Chamber to celebrate Charlotte’s trajectory compared with much of the country. Visionary business and civic leaders invested in the city over the years, separating our metro area from a less-distinguished pack. To take one example, from 1980 to 2010, Guilford County (Greensboro) grew from 317,000 to 488,000, or 54 percent. Mecklenburg jumped from 404,000 to 920,000, or 128 percent.

That continued course is not guaranteed and it’s not pain-free. The swelling population brings more cars, more students, more garbage, more crime. The best approach is not to stop that growth and stagnate, or to ignore it, but to manage it wisely. That means making targeted public and private investments that help maintain Mecklenburg’s high quality of life even as this place gets more crowded.

Mecklenburg County is asking voters in November to authorize the borrowing of $500 million over the next five years – $290 million for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and $210 million for Central Piedmont Community College. The county plans to spend an additional $414 million from cash on hand on parks, libraries, county buildings and other projects during that time.

The county has been on what it calls a “debt diet,” and this is the first CMS bond referendum since 2007. It would pay for about two dozen projects around the county, including new construction, replacing buildings, making major renovations, and providing new innovative programming. The CPCC bonds would expand the school’s instructional space by some 800,000 square feet. Both institutions are growing quickly. CMS enrollment has climbed by almost 50 percent over the past 15 years and CPCC needed to expand years ago.

Dena Diorio, Mecklenburg’s assistant manager, says the bonds would have no effect on the property tax rate. That’s because their cost is baked into the current rate. The county sets aside 21 cents of the tax rate each year for capital spending, so the money to pay the interest on these bonds is already accounted for.

I haven’t yet examined every project to determine how urgent it is, and the CPCC bond package may be the largest it has ever had. Voters need to learn more about these investments and decide if they’re warranted.

But the trend line is clear. Just ask Andrew Bowen. He projects Mecklenburg will hit its next giant milestone, 2 million people, sometime in the 2040s. He’ll get back to us on which day that lands.

Reach me at tbatten@charlotteobserver.com; on Twitter @tbatten1.
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