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Christensen: 10 million is more than a milepost for North Carolina

Bob Scott, like many Tar Heels, grew up on a farm, and he expressed pleasure that North Carolina during the 1960s had grown slower than the national rate.

“I hope that our population growth continues to slow down,” Scott said in 1971, in the middle of his four-year term as governor. “North Carolina does not need its cities to become gigantic, overpopulated, urban jungles.”

But North Carolina has experienced sizzling growth since then – propelled by Research Triangle Park and Charlotte’s burgeoning banking industry, among other things. With the recent announcement that it has grown to 10 million people, the state’s population has doubled since Scott was governor.

And North Carolina has added more people since 2010 than any state except Texas, California, Florida and Georgia, according to Carolina Demography, a demographic consulting service at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Ten million is just a milepost. But as all of us know, it is a sign of a state transformed.

When Scott became governor in 1969, North Carolina was still a very rooted state. One often could tell a person’s home county by his or her last name. And only Arkansas and Mississippi had less social, economic and religious diversity, according to a 1973 study by John L. Sullivan of the characteristics of the American states.

Today, North Carolina adds, on average, 281 new people very day – and most are from other states.

Among today’s North Carolinians, 58.5 percent are Tar Heel natives, 33.1 percent were born in other states and the rest were born in other countries, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. They also look different. As of the 2010 Census, about 69.5 percent were white, 21.5 percent black, 8.4 percent Latino and 2.2 percent Asian.

The population also is shifting radically from rural areas and towns to the metropolitan areas. For most of North Carolina’s history, the state had no large cities; its culture was defined by rural and small-town life.

But now, while nearly all the growth is in the urban areas – particularly the Triangle and Charlotte metro areas – the rural areas and small towns are stagnant or dying.

The decline of agriculture is partly to blame. In 1949, there were 288,508 farms in North Carolina. By 1969, there were 119,386, and by 2012 there were only about 50,000.

North Carolina’s industrial base once was spread out in small towns, and when the textile mills and furniture factories closed, the towns took a heavy hit. In the 10 years after 1996, the number of textile and apparel plants in North Carolina dropped from 2,153 to 1,282, and the number employed in those plants plummeted from 233,715 to 80,232.

Demographers predict more of the same.

The Triangle is projected to have 24 percent growth through 2030 and the Charlotte area 21 percent. But 15 counties are projected to have no growth, and 18 are expected to lose population.

These trends will be difficult to change because they are being driven by market forces.

The radical shifts – rapid growth, rural to urban, greater diversity – are unsettling to some. And there are probably still a lot of people like Bob Scott who worry about whether bigger is better.

But many states would love to be in North Carolina’s position.