By Tom Baxter
Georgia’s a big state with a lot of counties, so don’t feel bad if you can’t locate Chattahoochee and Long counties on a map. On the other hand it might be time to brush up on your geography: Chattahoochee and Long are the third and fifth-fastest growing counties, respectively, in the United States, according to the latest report by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Over the years we’ve grown accustomed to seeing one Metro Atlanta county or another near the top of the Census Bureau’s list of the 100 fastest-growing counties, as the boom spread outwards. But this year the fastest growing metro county was Forsyth, No. 29 in the country with a growth rate of 7.1 percent between 2010 and 2012. Fulton (No. 43 with 6.2 percent growth) and Gwinnett (No. 83 with 4.3 percent growth), were the only other metro counties on the top 100 list.
Chattahoochee (15.7 percent growth rate) and Long (11.1 percent) counties are on opposite sides of the state from each other, and neither is close to Atlanta. Both are close to, and in many places indistinguishable from, that rural America which for the first time is losing population, as fewer city dwellers retire to the country and rural economies continue to sag.
These two counties are the exception for the same reason. They could be looked on as the modest result of Georgia’s success in holding its own through the last few years of military base closures and cutbacks.
Chattahoochee County, south of Columbus on the Alabama line, is mostly Fort Benning, and has seen some modest growth as a result of realignments in which the big base absorbed the functions of others around the country.
“Chattahoochee is squeezed between Muscogee (County) and some of the the poorest counties in the country (Stewart, Webster, Terrell etc.),” said veteran Columbus reporter and columnist Richard Hyatt. “If there were ever a poster child for abolishing some of our 159 counties it would be Chattahoochee. It is fortunate that much of Fort Benning’s Main Post is in Chattahoochee but the rest of the land mass is decorated with mobile homes and sub-standard housing.”
The county did show some vision in consolidating its city-county government, the brainchild of the late Floyd Hudgins, Hyatt said. But “in reality, there was little to consolidate.”
Long County, between Hinesville and Jesup, is similarly close to Fort Stewart, home of the 3rd Infantry Division. It’s the troops from these bases, plus their dependents and the retail stores which cater to them, which account for the two counties’ growth, said Doug Bachtel, the University of Georgia demographer.
This news is a reminder of how important military spending continues to be to the state, particularly in slow times. Charlton (No. 11 in the country with 9.2 percent growth) and Bryan (No. 37 with 6.5 percent) counties, on the southeastern tip of the state, also owe nearby bases for their healthy growth. South Georgia in particular would be in starkly worse shape economically without the military presence.
These stats are also a sobering reminder of just how flat growth has been, nationally and in the state. When a relatively modest increase in base personnel is enough for a county to land in the third fastest-growing spot, there hasn’t been that much going on around the country.
Interestingly, Chattahoochee County also has the lowest proportion of people age 65 and older — 3.6 percent — of any county in the country. That can be explained by the very large proportion of active-duty personnel who live and work there, but it’s about the last way growth in the state has been envisioned.
“The next big wave of growth in Georgia will be from older adults,” Bachtel says.
The state has already endorsed that belief with generous tax breaks and other incentives to lure well-heeled retirees to the state. But the big headline from this latest round of census data is that retirees in urban areas are staying put. They’re not exactly retiring, either, but splintering off into a variety of late-career strategies which don’t involve their moving to the mountains.
Eventually, circumstances have to bend to demographics. A significant portion of the population is getting older, and a great many of them might still want to move here. But over the last couple of years, that hasn’t moved the needle in Georgia. Nor has standard residential growth kept pace with the fast-growing counties of Texas and other states. For what growth we’ve had, we can thank the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy.