Wilson bucks population decline trend

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When researchers looked back at population changes from 2010 to 2016, eastern North Carolina didn’t fare well.

With a 1 percent growth, Wilson County did better than its peers compared to a 6 percent decline in Edgecombe County and a 2 percent decline in Nash County.

“While the data in this report shows small growth, it is not a decline,” said County Manager Denise Stinagle. “Wilson County’s leaders have been proactive with collaborating with the city of Wilson, Wilson Economic Development, Wilson Community College and Wilson County Schools to strengthen all areas from recruiting and retaining the best employers to making sure we have a well-trained and well-educated workforce.”

Rocky Mount accounted for the bulk of the decline in the Twin Counties, losing 2,258 residents in the six-year period. Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography at the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, said the change is reflective of an economic shift.

“When we look at Rocky Mount as well as many of the other communities that have been hardest hit by the population declines in recent years, we see a concentration in the northeastern corridor and Rocky Mount is on the edge of that, but they have not been hit as hard as Bertie, Northampton and Halifax,” she said. “If you look along the non-metropolitan counties on the Virginia border, a lot of those communities have legacies of manufacturing and/or agriculture and both of those industries were more dominant in North Carolina than in the nation. But we also now match the nation’s industrial mix with declining employment in those industries, especially in manufacturing, and where those regional employment opportunities no longer exist, we’ve really seen population growth stagnate or decline.”

When the demographers studied the U.S. Census Bureau data, the top 10 communities with the highest population decline surfaced. Jacksonville topped the list with a loss of 2,361 people, Rocky Mount was second and Kinston rounded out the top three after losing 825 residents in the six-year period. Roanoke Rapids ranked fifth with a drop in 583 people while Tarboro finished last in the top 10 with a reduction of 419 residents.

Wilson officials said stemming the decline in population has not been an easy undertaking, but it’s one that has formed the foundation for every decision.

“Having grown up in Wilson County, I hear a constant question from leadership and citizens and that is ‘What kind of place do we want to be?’ said Assistant County Manager Ron Hunt. “And that kind of thinking lends itself to a vision and to a concerted effort to always put our best foot forward.”

John Bethune, the Dorothy and K.D. Kennedy chair of business at Barton College, stunned officials last year when he said 16,720 Wilsonians commute elsewhere for employment and 18,119 commute to Wilson County for a job.

“In the first five years of the decade, the state’s growth was urban and in a few key communities like Brunswick, but 2016 was the largest growth since 2010 in suburban areas,” Tippett said. “That suggests that only now are we beginning to see a return to pre-recession patterns in the suburbs with homes being built and mortgages approved. The trade-off of commuting to afford more home is returning.”

She used Rolesville as an example with the population nearly doubling from 2010 to 2017. Hunt said Wilson is an attractive and affordable option for employees.

“For commuters, our county is the perfect place,” he said. “They can go north or south on Interstate 95 or Interstate 795, and east or west on U.S. 264, soon to be Interstate 587. It is a very easy commute to the capital and the coast.”

Education and employment opportunities often drive many between the ages of 15 and 34 to move away from smaller communities.

“That has a double impact on those communities because not only are residents leaving, but those are the ones who are most likely to have children, so the communities are losing from out-migration and also the impact on natural population increases,” Tippett said.

She went on to note that the aging of baby boomers further influences population shifts toward metropolitan areas as rural hospitals struggle to survive and proximity to family factor into residency decisions. Tippett said there is no specific answer for every community to increase population numbers.

“What a community can do to attract people is really community-specific,” she said. “It is something that is more of a political decision in concert with data-driven decisions in terms of what resources an area has to leverage, engage or build upon.”

Wilson officials said an emphasis on improving the quality of life is important to drawing new residents and retaining existing residents.

“Wilson has been blessed by the strength of our businesses and industries with the strongest manufacturing base in eastern North Carolina. In our connected world, people will increasingly be able to choose communities based on where they want to live, not where an employer’s office is located,” Wilson City Manager Grant Goings said. “Preservation, redevelopment, investments in quality of life amenities and robust infrastructure systems all contribute to our sense of place.”

Goings went on to say that participation from residents is essential to developing plans for the community’s future.

“Our efforts to position Wilson for long-term success have been very intentional,” he said. “Our City Council has repeatedly shown the political courage to make bold investments in our future, often before the projects were pushed for by the general population. Their leadership has made a difference for Wilson.”

For more details on the statewide population study, visit tinyurl.com/y9qoh36a/.

bhandgraaf@wilsontimes.com | 265-7821