Nearly three decades after nearly reaching the mark, Chattanooga topped 170,000 residents for the first time last year, according to a new government population estimate.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Chattanooga grew 9.3 percent from 2000 to 2008 -- a rate as fast as any of Tennessee's biggest cities -- to more than recoup the population losses suffered in the Scenic City during the 1980s.
"The new estimates show that the city continues to grow consistent with what people see around them -- and all of this is before Volkswagen and others have cranked up to bring even more growth to our area," said David Eichenthal, director of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies. "The question is no longer whether we will grow but what will we do about growth to make sure we expand in a way that adds to the quality of life."
Chattanooga was the only major U.S. city to lose more than 10 percent of its population in the 1980s and then regain growth in the next two decades, Mr. Eichenthal said.
Government demographers estimate Chattanooga added 15,326 residents since the 2000 census population of 155,554 even before the announcement last summer that Volkswagen would build its only North American car assembly plant in Chattanooga. State economists predict the VW plant and its suppliers could generate more than 11,000 direct and indirect jobs.
"We've grown by making Chattanooga the best place it can be for the people who live here and now people around the country are hearing about our town and many are choosing to move here," Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said. "We're growing again and I'm confident we're going to keep going and someday we may pass Knoxville in size."
Chattanooga's estimated 2008 population of 170,880 was only 13,922 residents behind Knoxville. Mr. Littlefield has set a goal of displacing Knoxville as Tennessee's third biggest city, and he "could come very, very close" to that target if the City Council goes along with proposed annexations in Lookout Valley, East Brainerd and Hixson.
Despite Chattanooga's growth, however, most of the suburban cities that ring Chattanooga and grew rapidly after World War II declined in population since the 2000 census, according to new government estimates. But newer and more outlying suburbs, aided by annexations and more available land, continued to grow the fastest among local cities.
As a result, Collegedale surpassed Signal Mountain in population, and Lakesite exceeded the population of Lookout Mountain in 2008, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Across Southeast Tennessee, the fastest growing cities were Dunlap and Dayton. But most of the other cities in the region failed to grow as fast as Tennessee's statewide average growth of 9.2 percent, according to the Census Bureau.
"The older, inner-ring suburbs are tending to decline as more people move farther out into newer suburbs," said Dr. David Edwards, director of UTC's school of public administration program and a city manager for Lakesite. "It's a phenomenon we're seeing in the Chattanooga area as well as nationwide."
population costs and revenues
Extra residents mean more costs for police and fire protection, garbage pickup and utility services such as water and sewer connections, Dr. Edwards said. But growth also brings in more local tax revenue and a bigger share of state-shared revenues.
According to the University of County Technical Assistance Service, the state provides an average of $102.14 for each resident.
"Our population helps determine the amount of state-shared revenues we get so obviously every person counts," Red Bank City Manager Chris Dorsey said.
Red Bank was the biggest population loser in Hamilton County with a projected loss of 6.8 percent, followed by East Ridge with an estimated 4.8 percent drop in residents. But officials in both cities dispute the amount of the decline.
Mr. Dorsey said he believes any change in Red Bank's population since 2000 will likely be small since there have been a few new apartment and housing developments added in the city to offset the aging demographics which are making the average household size smaller than in the past.
Red Bank Mayor Joe Glasscock conceded that as a landlocked, bedroom community, Red Bank's population may have dipped slightly since the last census.
"But I challenge their estimate and we're anxiously awaiting the upcoming census to get an actual count," he said.
Doris Prevou, who has operated the Mr. Trophy shop along Dayton Boulevard in Red Bank for the past 37 years, said Red Bank remains an ideal home for small businesses and area residents.
"I probably can't accurately tell you the population, but I do know this is a fabulous place to do business and there are certainly a lot of friendly people here," she said.
In East Ridge, Mayor Mike Steele also questions the estimated decline.
"We've probably added 200 to 300 rooftops since 2000 and I don't see a lot of empty housing stock," he said.
The suburban cities do have history on their side. Prior to the last census in 2000, government demographers estimated that East Ridge's population was down by 6.8 percent and Red Bank's population was off by 8 percent in the 1990s. The actual census count, however, showed the number of Red Bank residents was actually up by 1 percent in the 1990s and East Ridge's population fell just 2 percent in the same decade.