Chattanooga's growth since 2000 was the fastest in three decades, edging it closer to Knoxville as Tennessee's third-biggest city, according to new census estimates.

After losing residents in the 1980s and growing a modest 2.5 percent in the 1990s, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Chattanooga grew nearly 10.2 percent from 2000 to 2009.

But the Census Bureau estimates the region's fastest-growing cities were in nearby suburbs to the north and south of Chattanooga, while Chattanooga's oldest neighboring suburbs lost population during the decade.

In its final population estimate before the 2010 census is tabulated, the bureau estimated last week that Chattanooga added 15,795 residents to boost the city's population to 171,349 people in 2009.

"I think these gains bode well for the future of Chattanooga and should continue with the transformation we have made in our city," said Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, a former city planner.

"I have somewhat humorously sent messages to (Knoxville Mayor) Bill Haslam that we are intending to knock Knoxville off as the third-largest city in Tennessee, and it's becoming more than just a joke," Mr. Littlefield said.

Chattanooga outpaced the growth rate of Knoxville and Memphis from 2000 to 2009, although the Scenic City grew more slowly than metro Nashville; Huntsville, Ala.; or Atlanta, census figures indicate.

Among cities in Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia, Fort Oglethorpe grew the fastest, expanding by more than 42 percent since the 2000 census.

Fort Oglethorpe Mayor Ronnie Cobb expects more growth in the next decade.

"We're rural in some respects, but we are still only minutes from Chattanooga with all of its urban amenities," Mr. Cobb said.

Although Georgia has a state income tax on payroll income while Tennessee does not, Mr. Cobb said property and sales taxes and land prices are lower in Fort Oglethorpe than in Chattanooga.

"As Chattanooga increases its property tax rate, more people are going to relocate here," he said.

Sherman Smith owns Dreamtech Builders, which has constructed more than 300 homes in North Georgia. He said the growth of businesses along Battlefield Parkway "means that Fort Oglethorpe is a place where people can live, work and play" at reasonable cost.

Other, older suburbs to Chattanooga are not faring as well, however.

As aging populations shrink the average household size, Hamilton County's biggest suburbs have lost population. The 2009 census estimates indicate that East Ridge, Red Bank, Signal Mountain and Lookout Mountain on both the Tennessee and Georgia sides of the border lost population from 2000 to 2009.

Bill Glascock, mayor of Lookout Mountain, Ga., conceded that with 110 unsold houses on the market on Lookout Mountain in both states, the economy is hurting many home sales and relocations.

But he said the town "is going full force now" with plans for a new sidewalk and redevelopment of the town center complex, which he said should help attract more residents.

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