Charlotte joins nation’s fastest-growing big cities

Sometimes, it’s OK to be in second place. Especially when you are the second fastest-growing big city in the country, according to a Charlotte Observer analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

So yes, Fort Worth, Texas, ranks first as the nation’s fastest-growing among cities with more than 500,000 in population. But which city is next? That would be Charlotte, which has grown 40 percent since the 2000 census. The city, with some 757,300 residents, now ranks as the nation’s 17th largest, up from 26th at the turn of the century.

Another figure from the Observer’s review of census data: Of the top five fastest-growing big cities, Charlotte is the only one that’s not in Texas. Austin is third, San Antonio is fourth and El Paso is fifth, mostly thanks to the growth in energy jobs.

And Raleigh? It’s actually growing faster than Charlotte, with a 50 percent increase from 2000-2013, to 414,500. But the city’s population has yet to topple the half-million mark.

John Chesser, a senior analyst with UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute, sees Charlotte’s trend continuing.

For instance, Chesser recently looked at a study produced by the United Nations of “urban agglomerations,” or the built-up areas around central cities. That study found that Charlotte and Raleigh were No. 1 and 2 in the U.S. for cities that are expected to grow the fastest between 2010 and 2030.

“It’s like all signs are pointing toward pretty strong growth,” he said.

Mark Vitner, senior economist for Wells Fargo Securities, said the area’s population is rising in part as a result of major corporate expansions and relocations to the area, including Electrolux, MetLife and Sealed Air Corp. Also, he said, Charlotte ranks highly among young people as a desirable city to relocate to.

Integral to job growth

The Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte areas have accounted for a combined nearly 60 percent of North Carolina’s job growth since the recession, he said.

At the end of last year, total employment in Mecklenburg County stood at 586,412, up 3.6 percent from the end of 2007, the year before the recession, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.

In the census data, Chesser noted Charlotte’s growth stayed steady even during the recession.

“There were still people moving here,” he said.

There are a lot of theories about why, but he thinks it’s because Charlotte has been growing quickly for a while, going back decades. So people who left areas that were hit hard came here to join family or to follow connections in search of jobs.

The other thing that jumps out, Chesser says, is that Mecklenburg is now growing faster than the counties around it. A younger population likes to be in an urban area, and Charlotte has all kinds of places to live, from walkable subdivisions to rental housing.

Census data also show that rural counties in North Carolina are starting to lose population, as younger people move toward the cities.

For instance, Rutherford County, west of Charlotte, saw its population decline 1.3 percent since 2010. Anson, east of Charlotte, saw its drop 2.9 perent.

“Almost all of the growth is focusing on the metro and urban areas,” Chesser says. Since 2000, Fayetteville grew 67 percent, Wilmington grew 43 percent and Durham grew 26 percent.

Spurring the economy

Having two fast-growing counties, Wake and Mecklenburg, draws a lot of economic development that is likely to spread throughout the state, says Chesser.

So, for instance, when younger people leave a rural area for school or jobs, they’re likely to stay in the state.

“There are a lot of things that are really important to the state and the state economy,” he said. “When you look at states that don’t have a Charlotte or a Raleigh, they’re in big trouble.”

Vitner said that as Charlotte’s population grows, it will come with pros and cons.

While some people will fret about having to sit in more traffic, retailers tend to expand in rapidly growing areas, he said.

That will give Charlotteans more options for shopping, eating and entertainment, among other things, he said.

“I think the benefits of living in a growing community far outweigh the costs.”

Staff writer Deon Roberts contributed.

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