March 29th, 2014 1:21 AM by Lori Speight
The Wilmington Metropolitan Statistical Area saw significant population growth last year, but an unpopular splitting of the federally recognized area from one of its key counties kept it from being the fastest growing area in the state.
The following are population estimates and county growth rates for July 2013:Brunswick: 115,301 residents, 2.77% New Hanover: 213,267, 1.96% Pender: 55,334, 2.11% North Carolina MSA growth rates from July 1, 2012, to July 1, 2013Raleigh: 2.19% Wilmington: 1.99% Charlotte: 1.76% Durham-Chapel Hill: 1.74% Asheville: 1.26% Fayetteville: 0.99% Greenville: 0.75% Greensboro-High Point: 0.66% Jacksonville: 0.66% Winston-Salem: 0.56% Burlington: 0.46% Goldsboro: 0.21% Hickory-Lenoir: -0.04% Rocky Mount: -0.39% New Bern: -0.72%
The Wilmington MSA, made up of only New Hanover and Pender counties, added 5,248 residents to the area between July 2012 and July 2013, according to a report released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau. The area experienced a 1.99 percent growth rate, making it the second fastest-growing area in the state after the Raleigh MSA.
"People want to live here. It's a wonderful place. Our quality of life here is second to none, and more and more people are realizing that," New Hanover County Commissioner Chairman Woody White said. "We are in a really good position, but it does present challenges on how we handle that growth."
The total population estimate for the Wilmington MSA in 2013 was 268,601 residents.
The new report reflected the area's most recent MSA configuration. The Wilmington MSA previously included Brunswick County, but the U.S. Office of Management and Budget removed Brunswick in February 2013 and grouped it with Myrtle Beach, S.C. The shuffle took away more than 100,000 residents who were previously included in Wilmington's metro area.
White said his main concern with the MSA designation is that federal dollars coming to area roads will be cut because it looks like fewer people are using them.
"Our long-term local projects are going to be adversely effected," he said. "We still have yet to see the real impact of the MSA, but over time it will mean that our area roads will suffer. I hope people in Washington will revisit this in the future."
Business leaders and government officials from the city of Wilmington, Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties traveled to Washington and lobbied against the change last year to no avail. They were concerned that the change could impact the ability to attract industry and federal dollars to the Wilmington area.
And the shift has made a difference when looking at the region's growth rate. If Brunswick County had remained in Wilmington's MSA, the area's 2013 population would have been 383,902 people – an increase of 8,352 residents from July 2012. Its growth rate would have been higher than that of Raleigh, making Wilmington the fastest-growing MSA in the state.
The addition of Brunswick helped the Myrtle Beach MSA population exceed more than 400,000 residents. According to the census report, the Myrtle Beach MSA is the seventh-fastest growing metro area in the United States, with a 2.72 percent growth rate between July 2012 and July 2013.
While this seems like officials' fears realized, Brunswick County Economic Development Director Jim Bradshaw said the population statistics are not likely to deter industry from the area.
"Industries don't look at the MSA statistics. If they are looking at the Wilmington region they will look at New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick," he said. "Site consultants pay attention to labor statistics in the region – who is looking for work, what kind of skills they have – as opposed to population growth."
One area the new statistics might impact is retail, he said. Retailers, both small and large, use reports known as Esri reports that are based primarily on MSA census data and the smaller population shown in the Wilmington MSA might prevent some retailers from considering the area, he said.
Connie Majure-Rhett, president of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, said her concern is that "we don't know what we're missing out on."
"Retailers can do their research online. They don't have to come here and see us. They can just look up if we have the population they are looking for," she said. "We could be discounted without even knowing it."
She said her group will continue to work on the Office of Management and Budget to get it to reverse the decision or to at least reconsider in the 2020 census.
"We want to be at the table when they start talking about 2020. OMB followed their methodology perfectly in making this decision, but their methodology didn't help them reach their goal of grouping like places," Majure-Rhett said. "It's something we will have to pay attention to."