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Houston County population growth slows while much of midstate loses people

WARNER ROBINS -- Not long ago, Houston County was among the fastest-growing communities in the country. These days, it’s got a middling record even in Georgia, new U.S. Census Bureau population estimates suggest.

But when it comes to attracting new residents, Houston County remains far ahead of most Middle Georgia’s counties, where population losses continue, according to the census bureau.

At one end of the spectrum, sparsely populated Hancock County lost about 400 people in the latest year reported, giving it the worse rate of population loss in the state.

The census figures released Thursday show counties’ estimated populations as of July 2014. Yet even some of the dismal figures of continued population loss actually show promise, said Greg George, director of Middle Georgia State College’s Center for Economic Analysis.

George said the midstate and the state in general were hit hard by the banking and housing crises. As the economy improves, people are better able to move.

George also pointed to relatively strong growth around metro Atlanta as a sign of some hope for the area. Some of the counties between Macon and metro Atlanta, such as Butts, Lamar and Henry, showed population growth.

“Growth in the Atlanta area is ultimately good for the Macon area,” George said. “It’s not coming at our expense.”

BIBB COUNTY LOSES ABOUT 700 PEOPLE

The census bureau estimates show Bibb County lost 710 people overall between July 2013 and July 2014, less than half the loss of the year before. Migration was a big factor: In the latest year, Bibb County had 1,251 more people move out than move in, but that’s still better than the nearly 2,100-person loss from the year before.

George said Bibb County could be working its way through economic troubles, as well as the aftermath of consolidation.

“With consolidation, some people in the unincorporated areas of Bibb County would be disgruntled with being lumped in with Macon and would move out,” George said. “You would expect to see that taper off.”

He said he expects economic growth to accelerate, partly because more investors are eyeing Macon-Bibb County.

Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission, said he thinks the next set of numbers will look much better. Residential housing sales are up, money is being invested around Mercer University, and Macon-Bibb County is getting ever-increasing numbers of prospects for industrial investments.

“I would rather we were increasing in population,” Topping said. “I’m not that concerned about a small decrease. But there is so much good going on. You’ve got Kumho Tire coming in with half a billion dollars. By the end of this year we’ll have hired 450 people.”

Topping said Macon-Bibb County consolidation also will pay dividends.

“We had a prospect in town the other day, and his comments were, ‘It’s so much easier to do business here with the consolidated government.’ And that can only mean more good things,” Topping said.

HOUSTON COUNTY GROWS BUT NOT AS QUICKLY

In Houston County, the estimates show it grew by about 1,200 people, but that’s about a third the amount the county experienced just three years ago. Births continue to outstrip deaths, but the estimates suggest migration patterns have shifted. Immigration had added about five residents per week in the latest year, compared to about 43 just several years ago.

Houston County Commissioner Tom McMichael said he hadn’t seen the census figures but thinks growth has been slowing. However, Robins Air Force Base is now stable and the county is getting more job growth, which should lead to more residents, he predicted. As an example, McMichael pointed to a 200-unit apartment complex planned for the corner of Houston Lake Road and Ga. 96. Other apartment complexes have quickly drawn tenants.

“Next thing you know, they’re full,” he said.

MONROE COUNTY NUMBERS QUESTIONED

An area of moderate growth is Monroe County, which the census bureau said grew by 46 people in the previous year, a change of 0.17 percent. The census estimates suggest all that growth came from people moving in.

Monroe County Commission Chairman Mike Bilderback questioned those numbers, saying figures from the county building inspector suggests the county is growing at a faster rate.

“From the size of the homes and the number of permits, I would have thought it would be up more than that,” he said.

“We’re a destination county. People want to come here, live here. It’s affordable. It’s close to Atlanta and Macon. We say that Monroe County is where Atlanta and Macon meet, and that’s pretty much true,” Bilderback said.

Smaller Middle Georgia counties that have had economic problems lately also experienced more population loss, the estimates show. Wilkinson and Twiggs counties, where the kaolin industry has been hit hard, lost more than 1 percent of their population in the latest year reported, according to the new estimates.

Peach and Jones counties added less than two dozen people each, both growing at a rate of 0.06 percent. Laurens County lost an estimated 76 people, a loss of 0.16 percent. Baldwin County, which has lost much of its industry, lost 0.5 percent of its population in the latest year. Crawford County fell about 0.76 percent.

Hancock County marked the worst loss in the state, losing about 4.6 percent of its population in the latest year. With an estimated 8,509 residents, Hancock County is said to be down 920 residents since the 2010 U.S. Census.

One exception to the declines: Bleckley County, up about 0.31 percent in the latest year.

George cautioned against putting too much stock in seemingly large percentage changes in smaller counties, because relatively small changes can make a large apparent difference. But, he said, rural counties are undergoing structural changes, with fewer people farming, which means fewer jobs in general.

“Smaller counties have tough economic issues to overcome. Younger people move away,” he said. “Those smaller counties aren’t as stable as they used to be.”

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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