Wake hits 1 million population, nears top N.C. county of Mecklenburg

With nearly 1.3 million residents, the Raleigh metro area is now the country’s 44th largest, leaping ahead of Richmond, Va., and New Orleans last year, according to the US Census Bureau.
With nearly 1.3 million residents, the Raleigh metro area is now the country’s 44th largest, leaping ahead of Richmond, Va., and New Orleans last year, according to the US Census Bureau. Al Drago

Move over, Meck.

Wake County has just joined Mecklenburg County in the 1 million-population club, new census estimates released Thursday show.

Mecklenburg’s 2015 population is 1.03 million, an increase of 2.2 percent from the prior year. It reached the million-person mark about two years ago.

Wake’s population last year was 1.02 million, up 2.5 percent from 2014 estimates, U.S. Census Bureau data show.

And while both counties saw double-digit growth rates between 2010 and last year, Wake had the bigger increase, 13.7 percent to Mecklenburg’s 12.4 percent, an Observer analysis of census data found.

In 2010, Mecklenburg had nearly 19,000 more residents than Wake. Last year, the gap narrowed to about 10,000 people.

Wake covers more land than Mecklenburg and also has more space available for development, census experts said, while Mecklenburg has seen its growth spill over to Cabarrus, Union and other neighboring counties.

But the experts said it’s unclear when Wake might surpass Mecklenburg’s population.

It’s always going to be a horse race between the two

Bill Graves, UNCC urban geographer, on the growth rates of Mecklenburg and Wake counties

“A lot can happen in five years” when the next decennial census occurs in 2020, said Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Carolina Population Center.

Bob Coats, the governor’s liaison to the Census Bureau, agreed. “It’s one of those things that’s fun to talk about, but it’s also like a stock market thing,” he said. “You never know when it’s going to happen.”

With both counties experiencing sustained growth, it’s not as if one is going to run away from the other in terms of size, said Bill Graves, an urban geographer at UNC Charlotte. “It’s always going to be a horse race between the two,” he said.

Wake County Commissioners chairman James West said he was pleased with the milestone but not overly worried about overtaking Mecklenburg.

“The issue of which one is the biggest, to me, is not necessarily a major priority,” West said. Rather, he said, it’s important to manage growth while focusing on such concerns as transportation, social services and education funding.

The Census Bureau, when announcing the new estimates for counties and metro areas nationwide, cited the combined growth in the Charlotte and Raleigh regions as helping muscle North Carolina’s population past the 10 million-mark.

The bureau had said the state reached that milestone in December. North Carolina added more than 100,000 people in the last year, with the two metro areas accounting for about 78,000 residents, according to the agency.

“They have been large, fast-growing counties and play an oversized role in the state’s growth,” Tippett said.

Those robust urban-area growth rates have been a hallmark of North Carolina population trends in recent years.

That’s a good sign for the state’s economy, as more people flock to job centers in thriving regions, Graves said.

Double-digit growth rates since 2010 for Cabarrus, Union and York, S.C., is a byproduct of job growth in the area’s Mecklenburg core, Graves said. At the same time, however, it creates economic friction for more rural counties.

“The history of the state has not been urban,” Graves added.

Indeed, nearly half of the counties in North Carolina and South Carolina lost population over the past five years, including Chester County, S.C., as well as Burke, Caldwell, Anson and Cleveland counties.

Overall , the N.C. counties that lost population are mostly rural, with the most severe losses in the northeastern part of the state. Northampton and Tyrrell counties lost more than 7.5 percent of their populations since the 2010 census.

Other highlights from the data include:

▪  Lincoln County’s population crossed the 80,000-person threshold, while Cabarrus is closing in on the 200,000-person mark.

▪  The coastal county of Brunswick had the highest N.C. growth rate since 2010, at 14.3 percent.

▪  Brunswick is part of the Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach metro area, which had the nation’s second-biggest metro-area growth rate between 2014 and last year, at 3.5 percent. It trailed only The Villages area in Florida.

▪  Raleigh’s metro area was tied for 16th fastest-growing in the U.S. last year, while the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia region was tied for 35th out of 381 MSAs. Their annual growth rates were 2.5 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

▪  Other than Wake, the only other county in the country to break the 1 million-person milestone was Fulton County, Ga., home to Atlanta. They joined 43 other counties.

▪  As big as they are, Mecklenburg and Wake remain far from the size of the country’s largest county. Los Angeles County, with 10.2 million people, is about five times the size of Mecklenburg and Wake combined.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

Adam Bell: 704-358-5696, @abell