Major Tennessee metros and percent population gain from 2010 to 2015:
› Nashville area — 1.83 million, up 9.5 percent
› Chattanooga area — 547,776, up 3.7 percent
› Knoxville area — 861,424, up 2.8 percent
› Memphis area — 1.34 million, up 1.5 percent
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Hamilton County's population grew at a healthy 5.2 percent rate since 2010, helping make the Chattanooga area the second-fastest growing among Tennessee's four biggest urban areas, new U.S. Census Bureau data show.
Metropolitan Chattanooga, which includes Hamilton, Marion and Sequatchie counties in Tennessee and Catoosa, Dade and Walker in Georgia, grew 3.7 percent in the 5-year period. It trailed just metro Nashville, which had a torrid 9.5 percent rate, according to the Bureau's latest estimates.
However, seven rural counties in Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama experienced population loss over the same period as state and local officials continue to try to help those locales fully join in the economic recovery.
Dr. Bill Fox, who heads the University of Tennessee's Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research, said people tend to go where the jobs are.
"Migration is linked to expectation," he said. "In the end, people go where there's jobs."
Aaron White, a principal in the Nashville organization helping to develop the $100 million Cameron Harbor project in downtown Chattanooga, said population in Hamilton County may turn out to be even higher.
"Your population growth may be a lagging indicator," he said. The latest jobs information shows steady growth since 2010, jumping to an estimated 5,400 new slots last year, he said.
"That's going to create some demand," White said, noting he tends to focus on such factors as apartment occupancy rates and rents, which are generally high and rising in Chattanooga.
Jeff Jennings, a commercial agent for NAI Charter Real Estate Corp., said he's seeing a lot of money chasing deals in Chattanooga.
"It's the [area's] growth pattern, its location," he said. "You can get a safer return in this town that you can't get in others."
Ethan Collier, chief executive of Collier Construction, said the growing population numbers don't surprise him.
"I grew up in Chattanooga," he said. "It's great to see the newer development and people want to live here."
According to the Census Bureau, Bradley County also recorded a 5.2 percent population gain from 2010 to 2015.
Among counties in Southeast Tennessee, Bledsoe County reported the largest gain, up 12.6 percent. But much of that growth came from a growing prison population. In 2012, a $208 million state prison opened in Pike- ville that houses more than 1,500 prisoners and employs 425 workers.
Hamilton and Bradley counties, the biggest and fastest growing counties in the region outside of Bledsoe, have both benefitted from Volkswagen and its suppliers' growing footprint. Chattanooga also has focused on wooing entrepreneurs and start-up companies in recent years.
Fox said VW and its supplier base is key to growth in the Chattanooga area and in Tennessee. But, he said, any sustained economic growth needs to also come from spurring locally owned businesses.
"Once a business has started, they need to expand," Fox said. "No area of the state will be able to have significant growth by relying on bringing jobs there. They need to create a substantial number of jobs on their own."
Among rural counties in the Chattanooga region, Polk and Grundy posted population losses. In Georgia, Walker, Murray, and Dade counties were down, while Northeast Alabama counties of DeKalb and Jackson both were off in population over the 5-year period, the Census Bureau data show.
Fox said that recent growth patterns show suburban areas increasing faster and then cities, with the most rural counties facing weakness, though there are exceptions.
"That's a significant challenge to overcome," he said.
Fox said Tennessee officials have taken steps to address the challenges that the most remote rural counties are seeing.
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County population growth
Across the Chattanooga region,the fastest growth from 2010 to 2015 was in the region’ biggest counties of Hamilton and Bradley, other than Bledsoe County which saw a jump from the opening of a state prison in 2012. Seven rural counties in the tri-state area lost population in the 5-year period. The growth from the 2010 census through 2015 by county was:
* Hamilton, 354,098 residents, up 5.2 percent
* Bradley, 104,091 residents, up 5.2 percent
* Coffee, 54,277 residents, up 2.8 percent
* McMinn, 52,639 resident, up 0.7 percent
* Franklin, 41,449 residents, up 1.1 percent
* Rhea, 32,526 residents, up 2.3 percent
* Marion, 28,487 residents, up 0.8 percent
* Polk, 16,773 residents, down by 0.3 percent
* Sequatchie, 14,811 residents, up 5.0 percent
* Bledsoe, 14,502 residents, up 12.6 percent
* Grundy, 13,441 residents, down 1.9 percent
* Meigs, 11,830 residents, up 0.6 percent
* Van Buren, 5,677 residents, up 2.3 percen
* Whitfield, 104,216 residents, up 1.6 percent
* Walker, 68,066 residents, down 1.0 percent
* Catoosa, 66,050 residents, up 3.3 percent
* Murray, 39,565 residents, down 0.2 percent
* Dade, 16,264 residents, down 2.2 percent
* DeKalb, 71,130 residents, down 0.1 percent
* Jackson, 52,419 residents, down 1.5 percent
Source: U.S. Bureau of Census, 2015 estimates for county population compared to 2010 census.