CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Mecklenburg County’s population moved closer to the 1 million mark last year, new census data released Thursday show, and the county is likely to hit that milestone by next year.
That would be a first for the state.
Meanwhile, formerly white-hot Union County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the entire nation a few years ago, was not even the fastest-growing county in the Charlotte region over the past two years. Mecklenburg was.
Mecklenburg’s growth rate between the 2010 census and last year was 5.4 percent, an Observer analysis of census data found. The county’s estimated population stood at 969,031 as of mid-2012, the most in the Carolinas.
The local population trends indicate that Mecklenburg is beginning to shake off the effects of the recession sooner than some other areas, according to Owen Furuseth, a demography expert and associate provost at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.
Despite a relatively high unemployment rate, Furuseth said, “People are coming back. There’s a perception of opportunity, that this is a place where I can get a job. Mecklenburg is heating up.”
Mecklenburg also had the fourth-biggest growth rate in the state since 2010, topped only by Hoke, Harnett and Wake counties. Wake’s population grew by 5.7 percent over the past two years to 952,151. Durham County had the fifth-highest rate.
While Mecklenburg still is home to more people than Wake County, the state demographer is projecting that by 2020, Wake will become the most populous county in the state.
Furuseth cited Mecklenburg, Wake and Durham’s growth rates as examples of how urban counties stand as a magnet for people as the state emerges from the recession. He expects the urban surge to continue as the economy improves. As an example, he noted the recent MetLife Inc. announcement of 2,600 jobs coming to Charlotte and Cary.
Furuseth called the 1 million population threshold “a benchmark that makes you an important urban place.”
Of the nation’s 3,143 counties, only 41 had an estimated population of 1 million or more last year. But even when Mecklenburg breaks into that club, it still will be way behind the country’s most populous county, Los Angeles, with its nearly 10 million residents.
Uneven growth rates
Union was not even the second-fastest growing county in the Charlotte region. That distinction went to York County, S.C., with its 3.8 percent growth rate. Cabarrus and Union counties followed next at 3.6 percent.
Coats attributed Union County’s slowdown in part to the recession’s effect on the housing market.
But Sharon Rosché, head of the Union County Chamber of Commerce, said the county needs more quality-of-life options, including dog parks, bike paths and theaters, to better compete with Mecklenburg County and other areas.
Nevertheless, the region’s growth was not evenly spread out. Only Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Union counties had growth rates that exceeded the state rate of 2.3 percent between 2010 and last year. South Carolina’s growth rate was 2.1 percent.
Catawba County had essentially zero growth while Chester County in South Carolina lost population during that time, census estimates show. In fact, 68 of the 146 counties in the Carolinas lost population from 2010 to last year, records show, including Anson, Caldwell and Alexander in North Carolina.
Nationally, the Census Bureau said some of the fastest-growing counties and Metropolitan Statistical Areas were in the Great Plains states and west Texas, which the bureau attributed in part to an oil and gas boom in those areas.
No counties in the Carolinas made the nation’s top 10 in growth rates.
But the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia MSA moved up one spot in the ranking and now is the 23rd biggest metro area in the nation, with a 2012 estimated population of nearly 2.3 million. The Charlotte MSA leapfrogged the Portland, Ore., MSA when it moved up one spot.
The Raleigh MSA rank remained at 47th biggest with an estimated population of nearly 1.2 million.