For the Northwest Georgia region, growth happened more rapidly in most counties surrounding Floyd County. Bartow and Whitfield counties passed Floyd by surpassing the 100,000 mark while Floyd grew to 96,317 — a 6.4 percent increase over the past 10 years.
That was the slowest growth in the region other than our neighbor to the north, Chattooga County, which had a 2.1 percent increase. To the south Polk County saw growth of 8.8 percent.
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The trend, not surprisingly, showed the largest double-digit growth in cities and counties along the I-75 corridor.
City, county and state leaders are mulling the 2010 Census numbers and what they mean and what they portend of the future of our region and Georgia.
So we followed up with officials in counties in the region to see what kinds of reactions were sparked by the new population data.
Even though Floyd County’s growth paled in comparison to some of its regional counterparts that saw population spurts of more than 20 and 30 percent since the new millennium started, Rome remains the largest city in Northwest Georgia, and Floyd is one of the three largest counties.
The county has added almost 6,000 people to the official population tally in the last 10 years.
Floyd County Commission Chairman Eddie Lumsden said he thought the net gain would be larger, but noted that Floyd industries started feeling the effects of the economic downturn before the count started.
“There was a shuffle in jobs and people relocating for many reasons, and I think those areas close to the interstate were able to hold on longer,” Lumsden said. “I expected Bartow to grow, simply because of their location and Atlanta moving north.”
Floyd County Manager Kevin Poe said a population boom can strain county resources, sometimes forcing officials to expand services and infrastructure before the newcomers’ taxes are added to the coffers.
He said Floyd’s steady, stable growth puts it in a better position to weather economic downturns than faster-growing counties.
Lumsden said local leaders have continued efforts to attract new industry, and the national financial crisis appears to be slowly turning around.
“There’s a bit of concern, but I believe we’re well-positioned as soon as this economy picks up,” he said. “I’m still very optimistic about our future.”
Local business leaders also have been examining the Census results.
“I wouldn’t look at it as something to worry about,” said Lamante Attaud, vice chairman of the business and professional division of the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce. “If anything it’s bringing businesses closer to us. I know that’s going to develop into opportunities for us to partner with other counties, so I don’t see the negative just yet.”
Ed Watters, owner of Watters and Associates, said slower growth here is not unexpected.
“Rome has always maintained its uniqueness of not high growth but being set aside and off the beaten path of the I-75 corridor or the I-20 corridor,” he said. “We’re maintaining well, but it’s not as high a growth as those on the main corridors. I think it’s the quality versus the quantity.”
Polk County added more than 3,300 people in the past decade for a total of 41,475 in the 2010 Census, an almost 9 percent increase over the 2000 population of 38, 127.
The county is continuing to see the same “slow, steady growth” of past decades, and that’s a good thing, Polk County Commission Chairman Marshelle Thaxton said.
“Gaining about 3,300 over 10 years, that’s about 300 a year,” Thaxton said. “We can handle that kind of growth. I’m glad we’re not being overwhelmed by explosive growth like what hit Paulding County in the 90s.”
Commercial vehicles, tourists and other travelers are finding it easier, and quicker, to travel to Polk County than ever before.
Thaxton said Polk County has benefited from growth driven by the completion of the U.S. 278 four-laning project. Begun in early 2002 and completed in late 2005, the project connected Rockmart and Cedartown with a four-lane divided highway.
In addition to connecting the two communities in Polk County, U.S. 278 provides an east-west, four-lane corridor that connects U.S. 27 in Cedartown, also a four-lane, to Interstate 20 near Austell in Cobb County. Four-laning of U.S. 27 between Cedartown and Rome was completed in the 1990s, but a new four-lane bypass around Cedartown was just completed in 2009.
Thaxton said the county’s growth appears to be primarily residential, as the county has not had a major industry locate to the community within the past 10 years. Some smaller industries employing a few dozen people have opened, and existing industries have expanded production, but the county hasn’t seen a rapid growth of business or industry “like some other parts of the state along the interstates.”
“Our growth is on track for what we’ve historically seen,” Thaxton said. “I’d rather have this steady growth than a boom.”
Only 545 more people were recorded as living in Chattooga County in the 2010 Census than in the 2000 count.
Chattooga’s official population according the report released this week put the number at 26,015, just 2.1 percent over the 25,470 folks who lived there 10 years ago.
“I have looked over the Census data and you would have to agree that the communities with the highest growth or projected highest growth are not the ones that also have the most successful quality of life criteria,” said Jason Winters, sole Chattooga County Commissioner.
“Part of the attractiveness of Chattooga County is that we are able to maintain a constant level of growth while maintaining our solid industrial base, yet having a feel of truly going back in time during a visit and not losing the feel of a small town way of life.”
Winters said the community will be attractive to outside investment because of its slower pace of life.
“Our consistency is something we are very proud of,” he said.
State Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, said the new Census numbers are good news in many respects, but the 25.2 percent growth of the past decade could pose challenges on the local level.
He notes that Gordon County’s population — 55,186 in the 2010 report, up from 44,104 in 2000 — has reached a point where it could be put back into one state House district, as it was prior to the 2000 Census.
But he said Gordon County’s 25 percent growth could be bad news for local government.
“If I were a county commissioner right now, I’d probably be pulling my hair out,” he said. “The county’s tax digest has shrunk dramatically, but it has 25 percent more people that want services. You have this tremendous growth and a budget that has remained static for the past three years.”
Jimmy Phillips, president and CEO of the Gordon County Chamber of Commerce, said the county’s location played a key role in the growth.
“Gordon County and Calhoun are perfectly located to benefit from the growth of both Atlanta and Chattanooga,” Phillips said. “We’re on an interstate with four exits and another one under construction.”
In addition, the county’s strong manufacturing base continues to create jobs and local government has done a good job putting infrastructure in place to handle the population growth, Phillips said.
Judy Bailey, chairman of the Gordon County Commission, said the numbers represented “a mixed bag” for the county.
“It’s good news that we are growing, but at the same time, it will put more strain on our existing resources,” Bailey said.
During the first half of the decade, when the economy was booming, most of the newcomers were moving to Gordon County because of the jobs, Bailey said.
“Over the past three years, our employment base has shrunk, but our population growth has not,” she said.
Now most of the new people are coming to Gordon County because of its location between Atlanta and Chattanooga, she said.
“I think that the fact that we are close to two big metro areas makes us attractive to a lot of people,” she said. “We still have a small town feel and a lot of people are moving from larger areas to raise their families.”
Bartow County, Floyd’s neighbor to the east, saw the biggest population boom with a 31.8 percent increase in 2010 — some 24,000 more residents — over the 2000 count.
Bartow-Cartersville Chamber of Commerce interim president Joe Frank Harris Jr. attributes this growth to many things, including the county’s proximity to Interstate 75 and the partnerships created between county government and the city of Cartersville.
“The city and the county government, law enforcement and schools have really come together. It has been great to see how leaders in our county have worked with each other,” he said.
Those partnerships have created better educational and work opportunities for Bartow County’s residents, Harris said. For example in January Vista Metals in Adairsville began construction on a new plant that would expand to house 60 employees, and last month Atlanta-based Patillo Real Estate announced plans to develop Cassville-White Road Industrial Park just west of Interstate 75 north of Cartersville.
Harris said the county was prepared to deal with this growth far in advance under the direction of Sole Commissioner Clarence Brown.
“He saw this coming and was really ahead of the curve,” Harris said.
He credits Brown with creating a geographical information system database for the county-owned water pipes and roadways long before it became a trend with local governments.
“The infrastructure was here ahead of time,” Harris said.
He hopes the growth will continue at a steady pace.
“We want growth, but in an orderly fashion. I want our children to leave for school and have something to come back to,” Harris said.
Catoosa County Commission Chairman Keith Greene is pleased with the latest Census figures — showing 20 percent growth in the past decade — and expects to see similar growth in the future in conjunction with the county’s trends toward further economic development.
“It shows a steady growth and I think we expected it,” said Greene. “We are continuing to drive the infrastructure needs in the county to make sure that they remain high quality with the population increases ... basic demands for services, not only roads but also sewers, residential buildings, commercial buildings, jobs, economic development. We’re working very hard to improve our infrastructure.”
Greene doesn’t foresee any major problems with the population increase, and his main concern now is making sure that the county’s comprehensive plans are in line with current and future projected growth.
Projected data for 2020 shows a slight downward trend in population growth in Catoosa County — 16.67 percent as opposed to the 20.01 percent increase from 2000 to 2010.
Greene thinks that may happen, but that it doesn’t mean Catoosa County is going to be losing its appeal any time soon.
“It could be a slight decrease just based on what is available in Catoosa County as far as residential housing and that type of thing … If we were to look at our economic development, I think our economic development has a tremendous influence on population growth.
“Personally I think it’s a great place to live and people have recognized that,” said Greene. “Low taxes. There’s a lot of quality-of-life opportunities in Catoosa County.”
Walker County Chamber of Commerce president Stephanie Snodgrass is pleased with the population trends the 2010 Census results have shown — a 12.6 percent boost that brings the county population to 68,756.
“I think the growth is great. I think that, of course, you like it to be,” she said. “You definitely want the community to grow, but you definitely want it to grow in a way that doesn’t overpopulate the area, and I think that’s what we’re seeing now. So that’s great”
Snodgrass sees the growth as a positive for Walker County.
“I think that it’s good. I think that it helps our local business. I think that it also helps our tax base and helps to distribute some of that in order to help fund roads and schools and infrastructure, so that’s a good thing.”
For business, continued growth is a positive sign, especially as the county is working hard to bring in as much economic development as possible.
Snodgrass said Walker County plans to capitalize on its size and beauty.
“Quality of life is one big factor that’s drawing people here,” said Snodgrass. “At the chamber we get a lot of people who call in, either driving through or having come to an event here, and they’re looking for more information about living here. They were that impressed.”
Walker County commissioner Bebe Heiskell also looks forward to continued growth, and notes that local leaders must remain aware of where that growth is occurring.
“We have been growing just a little bit over 1 percent a year, and that’s manageable growth, so if we maintain that I think we’ll be good,” said Heiskell.
Still, she said economic development needs to be a greater focus in future growth.
“We need to grow in more ways than just population, and I think we will. We need to have a good balance between industry and retail and residential growth,” she said. “We might be a good bit top-heavy in the industrial sector, so we need to push hard to make sure that evens out.”
Whitfield County’s surge in population will result in some big changes. Some are known, some aren’t.
The 2010 census showed Whitfield County with a population of 102,599, up from 83,525 in 2000.
Whitfield County Board of Commissioners Chairman Mike Babb said many state and federal rules are tied to population. Counties with larger populations must meet more rules and more exacting standards than those with smaller ones.
“That is a key number — 100,000 — where a lot of things kick in,” Babb said. “Air pollution rules and burn permits are tied to population and population density. I don’t know exactly how this will affect us, but it will. We’ll find out more I’m sure in the next few weeks and months.”
One change, according to County Attorney Robert Smalley, is that Probate Court judges in counties with at least 100,000 populations must be lawyers. That isn’t the case in smaller counties.
The increase in population may also affect the standards for other elected offices as well as the pay of those who hold them.
Hispanics counted for most of Whitfield County’s skyrocketing population over the past decade.
The white, non-Hispanic population rose to 63,818 in 2010 from 60,294 in 2000. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population almost doubled, rising to 32,471 in 2010 from 18,417 in 2000.
America Gruner, president of the Dalton-based social service agency Coalition of Latino Leaders, points to the huge growth of the carpet industry between 2000 and the 2008 recession as the reason for the Hispanic population boom in the Dalton area.
“They were offering jobs, and people were attracted to the jobs in this area,” Gruner said.
Next door in Alabama
To the west of Floyd County lies Cherokee County, Ala., with a strong interconnection for area folks. Some live there and work here. Some live here and work there. And many locals enjoy Lake Weiss just over the state line.
The 2010 Census numbers show that Cherokee County’s population increased by a little more than 8 percent over the past 10 years.
Cherokee County currently has a population of 25,989, including 3,489 Centre residents, 1,820 Cedar Bluff residents, 144 Gaylesville residents, 1,027 Leesburg residents and 560 Sand Rock residents.
In comparison, the 2000 Census recorded populations of 23,988 for Cherokee County, 3,216 for Centre, 1,467 for Cedar Bluff, 700 for Leesburg and 477 for Sand Rock.
“We are glad to see those numbers up,” said Thereasa Hulgan, executive director of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce. “A lot of the growth can be attributed to retirees moving to the area and making their homes here. Our industries, including health care, have played a role as well.”
Staffers from the Rome News-Tribune, the Cedartown Standard, the Calhoun Times, The Walker County Messenger, The Catoosa County News, The Cherokee County Herald and the Dalton Daily Citizen contributed to this report.