Tennessee's rural counties are losing population to bigger cities

Tennessee's rural counties are losing population to bigger cities

March 25th, 2017 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

Northbound U.S. Highway 27 traffic approaches downtown Chattanooga.

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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Hamilton County added a new resident nearly every two hours last year as the hub of the Chattanooga region grew at the fastest pace of any of the 20 counties in the Chattanooga region, according to new government population estimates.

The U.S. Bureau of Census estimates that Hamilton County grew by 4,134 residents from July 2015 to July 2016 — a growth pace nearly 25 percent faster than the nation as a whole.

But a half dozen counties in Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama near Chattanooga lost population during 2016 as urban counties continued to grow faster than their rural counterparts.

"As a state, we are seeing slow and steady population growth, and we continue to grow slightly faster than the national average for the third year in a row," said Melissa Stefanini, director of the Tennessee State Data Center, which is a local partner to the Census Bureau. "Population tends to follow job growth and and where people are pursuing higher education."

The new yearly census estimates pegged Tennessee's 2016 population at 6.65 million, which was 0.9 percent more than in 2015. Stefanini said more than 39,000 people moved to Tennessee last year, which helped Tennessee remain the 11th fastest growing state for net migration.

The fastest growing counties in Tennessee were in or near metropolitan Nashville, which continued to grow at the fastest pace among metro areas of Tennessee. Metro Nashville grew by 2 percent, nearly three times the U.S. growth rate, to top 1.86 million people last year.

Knoxville was the second fastest growing metro area in Chattanooga, followed closely by Chattanooga.

Chattanooga's metropolitan area grew faster than the U.S. as a whole, moving up the 6-county area into the top 100 metro areas in the country for population — just barely. Chattanooga's metro area ranked 100th in size in 2016, up from 101 ranking in 2015, according to census figures.

Despite the overall growth in metro Chattanooga, however, two of the six counties in the metropolitan statistical area — Marion County in Tennessee and Walker County in Georgia — both lost population last year.

The biggest population losses in the Chattanooga region were in Northeast Alabama, where both Jackson and DeKalb counties continued to lose residents, and in Grundy County, which had the biggest percentage drop in population last year.

The newly released data shows that of Tennessee's 95 counties, 67 added population last year, while 28 declined in population during 2016.

The populations of metro Cleveland in Tennessee and metro Dalton and Rome in Georgia all grew but trailed their state and national averages for growth.

Despite the move to urban counties in Tennessee, however, Chicago's Cook County lost more population than any other county in America last year for the second consecutive year. Cook County shrank by 21,324 people, according to the census bureau

The fastest growing county in America last year was San Juan County, in a remote part of Utah, which grew by nearly 7.6 percent to 16,895 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Wednesday night

"It's a beautiful area in southeastern Utah, so we could assume maybe there's some retirement migrations," said Emily Harris, a demographic analyst at the University of Utah.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.