March 19, 2009

Charlotte is growing, but not as quickly

The Charlotte region's explosive growth appears to be slowing, but the six-county metro area was still one of the nation's fastest-growing last year, according to Census estimates released Thursday.

The Charlotte region's explosive growth appears to be slowing, but the six-county metro area was still one of the nation's fastest-growing last year, according to Census estimates released Thursday.

The Charlotte metro area added 55,368 people for the year that ended July 1, 2008, and now has 1.7 million people. The 3.4 percent growth rate was down from two years of more than 4 percent growth, but even so, Charlotte is the seventh-fastest-growing metro area in the nation.

True bragging rights belong to Raleigh, whose metro area was the nation's fastest-growing.

The Census estimates cover the first seven months of the current recession. But they don't include the financial meltdown that led to Wachovia's sale to Wells Fargo and significant layoffs at Bank of America.

As the recession has deepened, it's likely that fewer people are relocating to Charlotte, and laid-off workers could be looking elsewhere. Mecklenburg County had its slowest growth during recessions in the early '90s, '80s and mid 1970s.

The region's economists and planners are unsure how the recession will impact this year's growth.

Some are optimistic, and predict the region will still grow, though at a slower rate. One theory is that the jobless won't leave Charlotte because the recession is so widespread there are few economically healthy places for people to move.

“Where are they going to go? The problem is there is no Promised Land,” said Joel Kotkin, an author who writes extensively about social and economic changes in American cities. “In every recession there were two or three places that were doing better. That's not the case now.”

While Charlotte may not attract many new workers in the short term, some say the area will still grow because retirees will come to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

Those retirees aren't impacted by the poor job market. But they are hurt by the collapse in real estate.

Mae Millican is executive director of The Dorchester, an independent living facility near Carolina Place Mall. She has seen an increase in transplants retiring in Charlotte, and her community opened 61 new units last fall.

But not all of the units are occupied.

“If they could sell their homes they'd be here tomorrow,” Millican said. “That's the holdup.”

She said she has a list of 75 potential renters who are waiting to sell.

Tony Crumbley, vice president of research with the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, thinks this year's growth will be smaller, perhaps 3 percent.

Crumbley said he wouldn't be surprised if Charlotte remains in the top ranks.

“Our labor force is still growing much more rapidly than competing cities,” Crumbley said. “People still want to be here. Hopefully we'll start creating jobs.”

Others project smaller growth rates for 2009.

Carolinas Medical Center projects 2.7 percent growth in Mecklenburg County. And Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools believes its enrollment will grow by 1.5 percent.

The Charlotte metro area, as defined by the Census, is Mecklenburg, Union, Cabarrus, Anson, Gaston and York (S.C.) counties.

Union County remained the state's fastest-growing county, at 5.1 percent. It's the nation's 13th fastest growing county since 2000.

The other fast-growing counties in the Charlotte area were Cabarrus, York and Gaston.

For much of this decade, Gaston County's population was stagnant. The county was trying to recover from the collapse of the textile industry in the 1990s, and it wasn't seen as a desirable place for Charlotte commuters.

But Gaston grew by 2.2 percent last year, after growing by 2.3 percent from 2006 to 2007.

“With growth in other areas comes problems of congestion and crowded schools,” said Gaston County Manager Jan Winters. “Our relative value has increased as others dealt with those issues. It's a balancing act.”

Winters said eastern Gaston communities such as Belmont worked to improve their downtowns, making them attractive to transplants. But Winters isn't looking forward to next year's population estimates.

“It's over,” said Winters about his county's growth spurt. “The growth that we saw in 2007 isn't with us at all.”

The latest Census figures also accelerate an in-state trend: More North Carolinians now live in the state's two biggest cities. At the start of the decade, 24 percent of North Carolinians lived in the Charlotte and Raleigh metro areas. That has now climbed to 28 percent.

Meanwhile, many rural N.C. counties lost population in the last year.

Charlotte's explosive growth this decade has come at the expense of many older Rust Belt cities. But as the recession spread throughout the country, and people found it difficult to sell their homes, those older cities retained more people.

The rate of population decline in Buffalo, for instance, has slowed. The Buffalo area lost 2,200 people in the last year, compared with annual losses of 9,000 early in the decade. Metro areas such as Pittsburgh also slowed their population loss.

“It's the bursting of a ‘migration bubble,'” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution think tank who analyzed the numbers. “Places that popped up in migration growth in the superheated housing markets earlier in the decade are now just as quickly losing their steam.”

“It's the constraint of not being able to buy or sell a home that is keeping people from moving long distances,” he said.

One exception was Detroit. That metro area grew slightly for most of the decade. It lost 27,000 people two years ago, and 32,000 from 2007 to 2008.

Charlotte is the nation's 34th largest metro area. It's behind Indianapolis and larger than Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News. Associated Press contributed.

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