By on 11.12.20 in Carolina Demographics, Migration

Dr. Michael Cline is the state demographer for North Carolina at the Office of State Budget and Management and has given us permission to re-post his content here. Each year, he publishes population estimates and projections for North Carolina and its counties.

Ten years ago the town of Leland, NC had a little more than 13,000 residents. According to our July 1, 2019 populations estimates, there are now more than 22,600 residents. That’s a growth rate of 67 percent since the 2010 Census.

“The folks in here in Leland embrace growth. It’s exciting to watch. For a number of years it was residential growth, but the last five years we’re seeing more commercial and retail,” says Assistant Town Manager Niel Brooks, who joined town staff in 2006 when the rapid growth was already underway. “We’re a relatively young town and there’s always been a vision for growth. We’ve tried to be ready for it. There’s a way to grow that is smart and also takes into account resident feedback and community traditions.”

Leland benefits from having characteristics favorable to population growth— proximity to a fast-growing major city (Wilmington) and location near coastal recreational areas favored by retirees.  However, it is not alone in growth. Across the state, most municipalities added population over the decade, with just 34 percent (187 municipalities) losing population from April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2019 (See Table 1).

Average Population Size and change by Municipality size, Table

A municipality is a local government authorized by the General Assembly to provide certain services, make and enforce laws, and collect taxes within a geographically defined area. Municipalities may be called villages, towns, or cities and may be located within one or more counties.

Overall, 670,379 people were added to North Carolina’s municipal population between 2010 and 2019 (a 12.8 percent increase since 2010). About one fourth (26 percent) experienced rapid population growth – more than a 10 percent increase since 2010. The same number saw population increases of at least 2.5 percent but not more than 10 percent (Figure 1).

Municipalities by Percent Change graph

How Population Change Affects Communities

Rapid population growth, for instance a doubling in the size of a municipality’s population over a short period, can bring about challenges for meeting the infrastructure needs of a rapidly changing community. So far, at least as indicated by our estimates, no city in North Carolina has doubled in size over the past decade, although a few have come close (Table 2).

Top Twenty Fastest Growing Municipalities, 2010-19

These rates of growth can challenge how local governments plan for and finance needed roads, water and wastewater systems, and other community services. Population losses challenge communities in a different way – services need to be adjusted to provide for a smaller population while at the same time maintain and finance infrastructure originally built to serve a larger population.

Just under a quarter of North Carolina municipalities (22 percent) experienced losses of 2.5 percent or more. The remaining municipalities (26 percent of all municipalities) were about the same size as they were in 2010 – having gained no more or lost no more than 2.5 percent of the population since 2010.

Municipalities with Dramatic Growth Share Common Characteristics

The extent of municipal population growth varied by municipality population size and location – with larger municipalities more likely to have grown than smaller ones and municipalities near major urban areas more likely to have gained population than those in other areas of the state.

Most of the towns that made the list of Top Twenty Fastest Growing Municipalities (Table 2) are suburban or exurban communities in or near the fastest growing metropolitan areas of the state, including: St. James, Leland, Navassa, and Shallotte (near Wilmington); Rolesville, Apex, Fuquay-Varina, Stem, Youngsville, Knightdale, Holly Springs, Clayton, and Morrisville (The Research Triangle); Harrisburg and Waxhaw (Charlotte); and Bermuda Run and Elon (The Triad).

Among the 20 municipalities with the largest percentage gains, Apex (an increase of 63.3 percent or 23,736 people), Holly Springs (an increase of 47.5 percent or 11,724 people),  Fuquay-Varina (an increase of 56.7 percent or 10,172 people) and Leland (an increase of 67.1 percent or 9,083 people) had the largest numeric gains.  Leland, located outside of Wilmington, was the only one of these four communities outside of Wake County (Raleigh).

Numeric Growth Favors Larger Municipalities

While the fastest growing municipalities were located in or near metropolitan areas, the municipalities with the largest population gains were our largest cities. All of the nine largest cities in North Carolina experienced population growth between April 1, 2010 and July 1, 2019.  During this period, these cities grew by 13.4 percent on average and added almost 40,000 people.

Municipalities with Largest Numeric population gains, 2010-19

Our two largest cities in 2010 also added the most people between 2010 and 2019. Charlotte added more than 132,000 people, almost double the number of people added to Raleigh (at 68,853) between 2010 and 2019.

Charlotte (863,985), Raleigh (471,745), and Greensboro (293,726) remain the three largest cities in North Carolina (Table 4) but over the course of the past decade, Durham (269,339) surpassed Winston-Salem (244,737) to become the fourth largest city. The fastest growing large city, Apex (61,212), is now ranked 17th in population size, up from 22 in 2010.

Thirteen of the twenty largest cities of North Carolina are located in the piedmont urban crescent – a region anchored by Charlotte, the Triad (Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point), and the Research Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill).  This region has dominated population growth in the state since at least the 1850s when the North Carolina Railroad first connected these three areas.

The largest cities located outside of the urban crescent include: Fayetteville, Wilmington, Greenville, Jacksonville, Rocky Mount, and Wilson in the coastal plains; and Asheville in the mountains. Of the top twenty municipalities, only Rocky Mount lost population between April 1, 2010 and July 1, 2019.

Twenty Largest Municipalities 2019

At the other end of the spectrum, only 53.2 percent of North Carolina’s smallest towns and villages (those municipalities with a population less than 1,000 people in 2010) experienced population growth during this same period (with an overall average growth rate of just 1.3 percent or 10 people).

In this first post, I have provided an overview of how the populations of our 551 municipalities have changed since 2010.  Most of our municipalities are small – but we continue to see tremendous gains in our largest cities and rapidly growing suburban and exurban communities. In the next post, I will provide an overview of one aspect of population growth – annexation. While annexations account for only a small portion of municipal population growth, it is an important aspect of population growth for some communities.

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