Shifting population

Shifting population

May 20th, 2009 in Stimulus

PDF: Tennessee population projections

DUNLAP, Tenn. - As an airplane pilot, Gary Hertzberg got a bird's eye view of the mountainous scenery atop Fredonia Mountain while flying to his son's home in Nashville.

Mr. Hertzberg spent 25 years in Minneapolis and Chicago flying for Northwest Airlines before retiring to Florida.

"I was frustrated down in Florida and when I looked down and saw the beautiful countryside in Tennessee, I started looking for a place to live," he said.

He and his wife, MariAnne, moved a year ago to a new home on Fredonia Mountain overlooking the Sequatchie Valley.

The Hertzbergs are among hundreds of new residents in Sequatchie County who have helped make the mountainous county just north of Chattanooga the fastest growing in Southeast Tennessee during the current decade.

A new University of Tennessee study estimates that suburbs and scenic areas like those in Sequatchie County are growing at a faster pace than Tennessee as a whole.

But UT demographers estimate other counties in Southeast Tennessee are growing slower than the state and national averages.

The slowing economy also appears to be taking its toll on Tennessee's overall growth pace.

"Bedroom and retirement communities around urban counties continue to be the fastest-growing counties and we expect that trend to continue over the next decade," said William Fox, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, which conducted the study. "But we're certainly not seeing the population gains that we did in the 1990s.

Tennessee's population growth in the current decade is projected to be 40 percent less than what it was in the 1990s, and one of every five counties in the state is projected to lose population from 2000 to 2010. As a manufacturing-based state, Tennessee enjoyed the robust growth on the 1990s but has been hit harder than many states during the current decade.

Former Sequatchie County Executive David Barker said his county continues to grow because of its plentiful land and relative low cost.

"The opening of Highway 111 eight years ago seemed to really spark our growth," he said. "We have a lot of places to build and developers seem to have discovered us."

shifting growth gears

Despite the recent slowdown in the pace of growth, the Volunteer State is still expected to outpace the U.S. average for new residents through 2020, however. Since 2000, Tennessee has grown at a similar pace to the rest off the nation after expanding at a faster clip in the 1990s and growing at a slower pace in the 1980s, according census figures.

In the current decade, the fastest growth in Tennessee is projected to be in Middle Tennessee, with more than 3.5 percent annual growth rates in both Rutherford and Williamson counties.

But in 22 counties, primarily in rural areas of East Tennessee, the number of residents is projected to drop from 2000 to 2010.

"In some counties, we're seeing a lot of outmigration and that is reflected in the lower population numbers over the past couple of decades," said Dr. Erin Middleton, a research faculty member at UT who authored the population study. "In some cases, these counties (losing population) have lower birth rates because their population tends to age over time."

In Southeast Tennessee, UT demographers estimate both Polk and Van Buren counties have lost population since 2000 and are projected to lose even more residents by 2020.

population linked to jobs

Population grows along with jobs in an area, Dr. Fox said. With slower employment growth during the current decade, population growth is down from the 1990s.

The UT study estimates Hamilton County is growing less than two-thirds as fast as the statewide average between 2000 and 2010.

But local officials believe the construction of a $1 billion auto assembly plant in Chattanooga by Volkswagen and plant additions by Alstom Power and Westinghouse for the reviving nuclear power industry should propel Chattanooga's growth in coming years.

"These recent announcements have changed the dynamics of our community," Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said. "Population growth is not a goal in itself, but I do believe we will outgrow most of our peer communities because of all the things that are happening in our area."

Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey also said he believes "local growth is already turning around" and he is looking for faster growth in the future.

"I'd like to see us continue to grow because with more growth comes lot of opportunities," Mr. Ramsey said.

Dr. Fox said the study's forecast uses historical data to predict the future and the new VW plant and its suppliers could boost the pace of population growth in some counties above what was forecast.

"Volkswagen might, in fact, change the growth picture in Southeast Tennessee," he said. "When you get that kind of dramatic announcement, our forecasts might be a little low."

retiree relocations

Southeast Tennessee also should benefit by aging baby boomers, many of whom will soon be retiring and looking to relocate to scenic and low-cost areas. Retirement relocations already have been a boon in Sequatchie County's growth, officials said.

David and Roberta LeVar moved two years ago from central Florida to a new home they built on Lewis Chapel Road in Sequatchie County.

"We selected this area because of its beauty and its low cost," Mrs. LeVar said. "We're still really close to doctors in Chattanooga, but Sequatchie County still has a smalltown feel and a friendly atmosphere."

Mrs. LeVar said they were eager to leave Florida when hurricanes pushed up insurance rates and property taxes above their monthly mortgage payment.

"The cost of living is much better here," she said.