Houston County is on track to eclipse the population of Macon-Bibb County as early as this year if trends continue, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Houston County is the exception to the norm across Middle Georgia, as it experienced large growth between July 1, 2015, and July 1, 2016. The latest census figures, set for release Thursday, show most of the area’s county populations having relatively little change in either direction.
The latest Census Bureau estimates put Houston’s population at 152,122, about 600 fewer people than Macon-Bibb’s 152,760 residents.
Houston has added at least 700 people yearly since 2010, while Macon-Bibb has declined in the last several years. Houston could become the largest county in Middle Georgia this year if the trend holds. The peak increase in Houston since 2010 was 3,408 people in 2011, according to the Census Bureau.
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For Houston County, the latest gains, 2,160, were a dramatic jump compared to 2015, when there was an 726 increase. Commissioner Tom McMichael said he attributed the growth to the quality of life, that includes low taxes and cost of living, and a strong school system.
“The quality of life in Houston County is as good as anywhere in Georgia,” McMichael said. “There’s a lot of stability at (Robins Air Force) base, and when you have stability, you’ll have growth. We also have one of the finest school systems in Georgia. We have a lot of people move here so their children can go to school here.
He added, “There are also a lot of job opportunities. There are a lot of people that live in Houston county and work in the Macon area and vice versa.”
The Census Bureau estimates reflect the residential and housing growth in the county, said April Bragg, president and CEO of the Robins Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Houston County’s “calling card” is the school system — the 14th largest in the state, which added about 400 students from the previous school year, she said.
“There’s job opportunities, access to amenities here in the metro area with Warner Robins and Centerville that offer shopping and dining experiences and with our rural areas, even the quaint downtown in Perry,” Bragg said.
The estimates are based on births, deaths and migration. The 2010 census data varied about 3 percent from the population estimates.
In other Middle Georgia counties, the 2016 data shows slight upticks in population in Monroe County with 199 residents, bringing its total to 27,306. Also, Jones County’s population began bouncing back after a decline of 257 in 2015, as the city saw 69 more residents in 2016.
One of the largest percentage changes in Middle Georgia was Bleckley County, where the number of people living there jumped by 188, a 1.4 percent increase.
Macon-Bibb County experienced a population decline for the fourth consecutive year, this time with a 0.5 percent decrease.
There were 153,540 people living in Bibb in 2015. In 2016, that estimate dropped by 780 to 152,760.
Local business leaders said the trend in Macon-Bibb will change with economic growth and the rebirth of downtown Macon.
The Chamber of Commerce is one of the agencies using new strategies to promote economic development.
“It’s not a lack of jobs. The net gain in jobs year over year is up,” said Mike Dyer, president and CEO of the Greater Macon Chamber of Commerce.
Another change in approach is with the Macon-Bibb County Industrial Authority, which, starting this year, became the point of contact for new companies interesting in moving to the county. Efforts from marketing to businesses to supporting millennials are part of a new mindset needed to spur growth, authority Chairman Cliffard Whitby said.
It’s about “taking a hard, honest look at who we are and who we want (Macon-Bibb) to be,” he said.
“We are leaving no stone unturned,” Whitby said. “I predict we’ll see there is a reversal of the (population) trend, and we will start seeing positive growth as it relates to those efforts.”
Downtown Macon is a prime example of a place attracting a younger workforce to live there. As that expands to other communities, Macon-Bibb could see fewer people leaving and more people moving into the county, Dyer said.
“We’re heading in the right direction,” he said. “I believe we crossed a critical ... (point), and the future is nothing but bright for Macon-Bibb.”