After trailing its Mid-South metropolitan neighbors through the 1980s, Chattanooga has become the fastest-growing major city in Tennessee in the 21st century.
The city successfully challenged a federal population estimate a year ago, and new population figures released today indicate that Chattanooga outpaced most other metro cities in the region again last year. In the past seven years, Chattanooga has been the fastest-growing major city in Tennessee, adding 14,330 residents since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We were in a deep hole in the 1980s,” Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield recalled. “I won’t say it’s time to declare total victory, but we’ve definitely dug ourselves out of where we were, and people are recognizing Chattanooga as a great place to live.”
The census bureau said Chattanooga picked up another 1,591 residents last year even after the bureau revised upward its population estimate last November. In response to a challenge by the city of Chattanooga, the bureau recalculated its 2006 estimate of the city’s population to add 13,103 more residents and give the city a population boost instead of a loss that had been reported after the 2000 census count.
Demographers for the bureau estimate those population gains continued enough last year to offset the city’s population losses in the 1980s. The 2007 estimate of Chattanooga’s population, 169,884 residents, topped the 1980 census level of 169,514 for the first time.
“What these estimates suggest is that the turnaround trend that began in the 1990s has accelerated in this decade,” said David Eichenthal, president of the Community Research Council Inc., a nonprofit agency that tracks population and community trends. “The good news about this is that it suggests the city can begin to think about a whole set of growth issues — not just how do you turn around these numbers, but how do we sustain and effectively manage our growth?”
In 2007, Chattanooga ranked as America’s 138th largest city. Although that ranking was far below Chattanooga’s 66th place ranking in 1940, the Scenic City moved up five places from its 143rd place ranking in 2005.
Chattanooga ranked just 15 cities and 13,662 residents below East Tennessee’s biggest city of Knoxville, which with 183,546 residents was the nation’s 123rd biggest city in 2007.
“I still have Knoxville in my gun sights, so (Knoxville Mayor) Bill Haslam better take notice,” Mr. Littlefield joked.
Although Chattanooga grew at a slightly faster pace last year and since 2000 than Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee’s capital city still moved into the top 25 cities in population size last year. With its metropolitan form of government, Nashville-Davidson County was the 25th biggest U.S. city last year, behind only No. 18 Memphis in Tennessee.
Georgia’s capital city, Atlanta, ranked 33rd in size but still grew nearly three times as fast as did the city of Chattanooga since the 2000 census. From 2000 to 2007, the census bureau estimates that the city of Atlanta added 101,039 more residents to expand its population by 24.2 percent.
Chattanooga is one of only a handful of major cities that lost population in the 1980s and then picked up residents during the past two decades, Mr. Eichenthal said.
Chattanooga City Council Chairwoman Linda Bennett said the Scenic City is benefiting from its outdoor and tourism attractions.
“People visit our city, like what they see and want to move here,” she said.
Chattanooga suffered in the 1980s from people moving to the suburbs and job cutbacks in the nuclear power, heavy manufacturing and textile and apparel industries, Mr. Eichenthal said. In the past decade and a half, Chattanooga has benefited by the revival of its downtown and growth in its tourism, insurance and trucking industries, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“People are again moving into the city from the suburbs and from around the country,” Mr. Eichenthal said.
Nationwide, the census bureau said New Orleans had the biggest rate of population gain from 2006 to 2007. But the Crescent City still had the biggest population loss of any major U.S. city after the dramatic exodus of its residents following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina that flooded much of the city. The 2007 population of New Orleans was less than half of its 2000 census level after the city lost 245,550 residents, census figures show.
Columbus, Ga., had the largest percent drop in population last year, 4,794 residents, or 2.5 percent, because of cutbacks at the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning, according to the census bureau.