It's Wake's turn as state's population king

Staff WritersJuly 18, 2010 

  • Wake and Mecklenburg counties haven't always been the state's top population centers.

    In 1800, Rowan County, which has Salisbury as its seat, was home to 20,060 residents and was the state's most populous county. At that time, slaves were counted as only three-fifths of a person. Counties were also much larger; in 1800, North Carolina had 60. Today there are 100.

    By 1850, Wake had taken over the top spot, with nearly 25,000 people.

    In 1900, Mecklenburg hit No. 1, with 55,268, about 650 more than Wake. Guilford County, with Greensboro as its hub, took over for a couple of decades before Mecklenburg regained control in 1950. It led the rankings until 2010, when, if state estimates are accurate, Wake regained the lead.

    Sources: University of Virginia Library, U.S. Census

— If the state number crunchers are correct, Wake County has become the most populous county in the state, elbowing aside Mecklenburg, its long-proud cousin to the southwest.

Official numbers won't be known until the U.S. Census releases its data this winter, but the state keeps its own statistics and uses them to forecast population trends. Its projection for July 2010: There are 920,307 people in Wake County and 909,493 in Mecklenburg, more than two-thirds of them inside Charlotte's city limits.

For the folks who follow these things, the news is additional proof that Wake County continues to head in the right direction, attracting new businesses and the people needed to fill those jobs.

"It's an indication of long-term economic strength," said Ken Atkins, executive director of Wake County Economic Development, a program of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. More people also mean more health-care options, more shopping opportunities and more places to catch a concert or a ballgame. "Population growth really adds to the quality of life."

Mecklenburg County, with its explosive growth as a financial hub and its relatively new pro football and basketball teams, has reaped the benefits that transplants bring with them. Mecklenburgers will let you know it, too.

"Whatever the population numbers are, Charlotte is the economic capital of a two-state region. From an economic development perspective, that's frankly what's more important," said Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. Whatever the population numbers, the bottom line is that the state benefits from having two distinct boomtowns, Morgan said.

"We are both economic engines for the state of North Carolina. That's a good thing," he said. "We still might like a recount."

Setbacks in the economy, particularly the banking industry, have taken a toll on Mecklenburg's growth.

A Charlotte Observer analysis of recent census data last spring showed marked drop-offs in out-of-state transplants and 20-somethings. Migration from outside the Carolinas had dropped 20 percent, complicated by the difficulty of selling homes nationwide. Fewer jobs were available.

Unemployment in May was 10.4 percent in Mecklenburg, and 8 percent in Wake.

In Wake, newcomers are settling in Raleigh as well as outlying communities, turning small towns into suburbs. More than half of the people in Wake County live outside Raleigh. Cary is the state's seventh largest town, making it bigger than Wilmington and High Point.

Although there are neighborhoods in Wake County where everyone seems to be from somewhere else, there are plenty of people who have witnessed firsthand the population changes over the last few decades.

Steve Ellington lives next door to the house he was born in, just outside Wendell in eastern Wake County, and supplements his Army pension by boarding horses on family land. Ellington has boarded horses for people who have moved here from New York, Arizona and Alabama.

Even the population of tiny Wendell has nearly doubled in the last 20 years. When Ellington was a child, there were only four or five houses on Davistown Road.

"You could tell who was coming down the road by the sound of their car or the rattle of their truck," said Ellington, 63. "Now, you don't know nobody hardly anymore."

Statistically speaking

The person in charge of counting all those men, women and children is state demographer Jennifer Song. Based in Raleigh, Song works for the Office of State Budget and Management.

The state's estimates use the decennial census numbers as a base. As of April 2000, the U.S. Census counted 627,846 in Wake and 695,454 in Mecklenburg. To come up with the July 2010 projection, Song used estimates from the census that are revised each year, together with birth and death statistics, elementary- and middle-school enrollments, and car registrations. Wake's school population surpassed Mecklenburg's in 2007.

Song is not surprised that Wake has taken the overall population lead.

"Wake, for most of the past decade, has grown very quickly," she said.

Wake is bigger than Mecklenburg - 832 square miles versus 526, according to the 2000 Census - and is less economically dependent on the financial sector. Wake's population numbers had been nipping at Mecklenburg's for years, and when the economy took a downturn, so did Americans' mobility.

"The last little gap was closed by the recession," Song said.

The science of population prognostication is a squishy one. The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce has a numbers guru who pegged Mecklenburg's January 2010 population at 963,363, meaning Mecklenburg could still be ahead.

And in terms of metro areas, Charlotte's is definitely bigger. July 2009 census estimates show the Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury Combined Statistical Area is home to 2.39 million people. The Raleigh-Durham-Cary area, which includes Chapel Hill, has 1.74 million.

Happily resettled

Jackie Holcombe remembers being a little homesick those first few months in the Triangle. She and her family had just moved from Florida to Cary, so her husband could work in Research Triangle Park. Those feelings didn't last long, though.

"After those first few months in 1989, we never had a thought of going anywhere else," she said.

Holcombe, who has since moved to Morrisville and become its mayor, has seen the population in her part of the county explode since her arrival. In 1990, the census counted 1,022 people in Morrisville. In 2009, it estimated the town's population to be 14,018.

Holcombe and her family like Wake County for the same reasons her neighbors do. It is centrally located to everything North Carolina has to offer, including beaches and mountains. The winters are manageable. There is world-class health care nearby.

Holcombe likes the fact that Triangle universities and businesses attract people from all over the world.

"It's a delightful and diverse group of folks," she said.

Laurel Creazzo agrees. Four years ago, she moved from Florida to Fuquay-Varina to be closer to her grandchildren and start a business with her daughter. The pair run Kidicio Fun Science for Kids, a business in Apex that offers science programs for young children.

Over and over, Creazzo mentions the friendliness of the people she has met here. She reasons that newcomers must be embracing the culture of Southern hospitality, perpetuating an atmosphere of good will that adds to Wake County's long list of attributes.

"Everybody moving here seems to be nice, so it can't be too bad, right?"

Researcher David Raynor contributed to this report. or 919-829-4889

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