Five years after becoming part of the Charlotte metropolitan area, Iredell County has experienced its share of population growth, seeing the arrival of several thousand people.
Although the upswing is more apparent in its southern portion, particularly in and around Mooresville, Iredell is among more than a dozen other counties in North Carolina that fall into a new category a statewide economic development organization recently created to more accurately reflect the state’s increasing population: suburban, or regional city.
“The state of North Carolina is growing,” said Jason Gray, a senior fellow with the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, which created the category. That is particularly noticeable in the greater Charlotte and Raleigh regions.
The classification is based on population density and is meant to offer a “better description of reality,” he said. He noted that it will have no bearing on the flow of state or federal grant money to the county.
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Long considered rural, Iredell’s population has grown by some 7,000 people since it was grouped into the Charlotte metro area in the 2010 Census. It has the 17th-highest population density in the state, with a little more than 290 people per square mile, up from slightly less than 280 in 2010, according to recent population estimates.
To account for that growth, the Rural Center recalculated the county’s population density, eventually classifying it and four other counties as “transitional rural.” It wasn’t until this spring that its board of directors voted to create the new category.
Before that, the center classified each of the state’s 100 counties as either rural or urban. (Rural counties are defined by it as having less than 250 people per square mile, while urban ones have between 750 and a little more than 1,900 per square mile.)
Iredell is one of 14 counties considered either suburban or regional cities, which account for about one-fourth of the state’s population, including nearby Lincoln and Union counties, Gray noted. One of the fastest-growing counties in the country, Union has seen the largest increase in population density, growing by about 17,000 people between 2010 and 2014, to nearly 400 people per square mile.
Established in the late 1980s, the Rural Center aims to promote community and economic development, advocating state and federal funding in rural counties, particularly those with limited resources. It provided taxpayer-funded grants for economic and infrastructure development until two years ago, after a state audit that led the N.C. Department of Commerce to take over that responsibility.
Classifying each county based on its population density is part of the center’s research efforts, which aim to identify ways to connect rural and urban parts of state, among other things.
Such classifications are somewhat nebulous, as there is no uniform definition of a suburban or rural area, Gray said.
Even so, they are significant, serving not only to illustrate population trends, but also to help both local leaders and residents plan for growth.
“We will only have great rural communities by local citizens actively deciding for themselves what kind of community they want to be,” said Gray. “You have to think ahead.”
As for how much state funding counties receive for economic development, that depends on where they fall into a three-tier system overseen by its Commerce Department. The rankings are based on median household incomes, population growth, property taxes and unemployment rates.
Iredell is in the third tier, meaning it is considered among the most economically healthy counties in the state.
The long-established system, however, has come under scrutiny.
“Using an entire county boundary is inefficient and doesn’t reflect true market conditions of several communities” within it, said Michael Smith, executive director of Statesville Regional Redevelopment. He noted that counties in the third tier do not qualify for a program offering sales tax refunds that could lead to major capital improvement projects, saying the system “can put a number of locations at a disadvantage in their ability to access state assistance.”
Stretching some 50 miles north to south, Iredell has also seen some growth in and around Statesville.
But its ranking is skewed, Smith suggested, because of higher property taxes in the Lake Norman area. Moreover, it is all but surrounded by counties that are grouped into the second tier.
The northern part of the county “shouldn’t be viewed in the same manner” as its southern part, said Smith.
Offering an alternative, he suggested the Commerce Department refer to a mapping system the U.S. Census Bureau uses to identify rural areas. The system would prove more precise, he said, expanding access to financial incentives.
Jake Flannick is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.