For the third year in a row, there has been a regional role reversal as Mecklenburg County outpaced the growth rate of all its suburban counties.
In fact, Mecklenburg had the second-highest growth rate in North Carolina last year behind only Brunswick County, new U.S. Census Bureau data show. Mecklenburg’s population of 990,977 represented a 2.4 percent increase from 2012 and brought it to the precipice of the million-person mark, which will be a first for a Carolinas county.
Meanwhile, Mecklenburg and Wake counties combined for nearly half of all of the growth in the state since 2010, according to a new UNC Charlotte Urban Institute study.
What’s happening in those counties mirrors a national pattern, said study author John Chesser, a senior analyst at the institute. Urban centers have been growing faster than other areas for several years now.
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“Union County in the 2000s was ensconced in everyone’s mind as the hottest county in the region,” Chesser said. “But the trend has reversed.”
Reasons for the change
Several factors help account for the population shifts, experts said.
Some younger people in the workforce like to live in an urban, walkable setting, said Bill Graves, an associate professor and urban geographer at UNCC. “They grew up in the suburbs and are done with that,” he said.
Just check out a new list of top cities for recent college graduates by Apartments.com. It ranked Charlotte second, accounting for rent affordability as well as whether cities offered a vibrant culture catering to young professionals.
Amenities such as the new uptown baseball stadium, entertainment complexes, shopping and dining opportunities all help attract people to the area.
At the same time, baby boomers whose children have left home may be looking to move into smaller homes.
That adds to the number of people considering options other than traditional single-family homes in an increasingly diverse housing market, Chesser said.
As an example, he cited last week’s announcement of a $75 million, mixed-use development coming to Monroe and Idlewild roads. The complex will include restaurants, offices and retail shops along with 260 apartments.
They are the latest addition to Charlotte’s apartment construction boom, which is at an all-time high, a recent study found.
Another trend at work is people’s desire to reduce commuting distances, Chesser said, and live closer to where they work.
The light rail line extension gives people an additional commuting option, he said, as well as serving as a catalyst for developing more multifamily homes in Mecklenburg.
Liking what she sees
Maria Lahodny was eager to move to south Charlotte over the summer with her husband and 9-year-old son.
The ad agency where she worked in Portland, Ore., wanted her to relocate to its Charlotte office, and Lahodny said she was glad for the chance.
“There are a few places across the country that do a good job of making people feel you are open for business and that things are happening here,” she said. “Charlotte is a growing city with a lot going on.”
Checking out city neighborhoods, taking in their tree-lined vistas and finding “hidden gems like the Mint Museum” all endear Charlotte to her. This past weekend, Lahodny and family planned to catch a Charlotte Knights game at the new ballpark.
“There’s a lot to explore,” she said, “and we love the local baseball stadium.”
Other counties’ changes
In the early 2000s, Union County was the face of growth for the Charlotte region. It was the state’s fastest-growing county and among the fastest in the nation.
Cabarrus County and York County, S.C., also saw significant growth. They still are gaining residents, just not as fast as earlier rates or at Mecklenburg’s pace, data show.
For instance, Union, Cabarrus and York all grew by about 5 percent between 2010 and last year, while Mecklenburg topped 7 percent.
Also during that time, Cleveland, Rowan and Chester County, S.C., lost population.
As urban areas grow, some counties, especially rural ones, continue to experience a population decline, Chesser and Graves said. Some rural areas have taken a beating from years of manufacturing job losses, while the population that remains is getting older.
“You don’t have people saying, ‘I just got my degree and I’m going to move to small-town North Carolina,’ ” Chesser said.
Nearly half of South Carolina’s counties lost population between 2012 and last year, while 43 of North Carolina’s 100 counties dropped in total numbers.
Chesser does not expect to see a population slide continue for so many Carolina counties. Southern cities still attract people from around the country, he noted in his study, with Charlotte and Raleigh at the center of the urbanization movement in North Carolina.
Most experts believe the trend will continue at least for the next decade or so, Graves said.
For now, the Charlotte area can enjoy one other bit of census news.
For the first time in years, Mecklenburg’s 2013 growth rate edged out Wake’s, 2.4 percent to 2.3 percent. Go back through the past several decennial census counts, and Wake’s rate continually topped Mecklenburg’s, as far back as the 1970 count.
Database editor Gavin Off contributed to this report.