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Census estimates Liberty's growth lags

Long County among fastest growing areas in country

POSTED: June 10, 2013 9:28 a.m.

U.S. Census Bureau population estimates recently released indicate the Coastal Georgia region continues to grow, but the population inside Liberty County has not kept up with growth projections between 2010 and 2012.
Long County, however, shows increases in the annual federal population estimates released May 23.
When the data is sorted by percent change from April 1, 2010, to July 1, 2012, the combined statistical area for Savannah-Hinesville-Statesboro ranks No. 6 nationwide. The local combined percent change is 0.04.
It also is second in the state, behind the Columbus-Auburn-Opelika area, which includes Fort Benning and parts of Alabama.
The estimates place a quantifiable value to growth that has been discussed in recent months by government and education officials.
Long County schools, this year, have reported marked gains in student enrollment, while Liberty County has seen a decline.
Long County was listed as the fifth-fastest growing county in the United States and the second-fastest in Georgia from 2010 to 2012. The same period, Georgia’s Chattahoochee County was ranked No. 3 nationwide.
The April 1, 2010, base estimate lists Long County’s population as 14,448, and it reportedly grew by 11.1 percent to 16,048, according to the July 1, 2012, estimate.
From 2011 to 2012, Long County gained 5.56 percent, growing from 15,202 in 2011 to 16,048.
Long County School Superintendent Dr. Robert Waters said the district saw such great gains prior to fiscal year 2012 that they enacted a residency policy, which put an end to students attending their schools from other areas, such as Jesup and Tattnall County.
Growth continued this year, with the system seeing an influx of about 185 students, bringing estimated enrollment to 2,900, Waters said. They have added between four and six teaching positions and project an additional 35 to 60 students in the coming year.
“It’s not an exact science. We’ve got to plan and do as best we can with limited knowledge, and as we become more and more military focused, with the transient population, we won’t know the number of folks that left this school system until next year…,” Waters said. “On top of that, we don’t know what’s going to happen to Fort Stewart. If something happens and they decrease, it gets to us quickly.”
Representatives from the Long County Commission could not be reached to comment on the growth, as they were in Jekyll Island for training at press time.

Addressing the numbers

Bryan, Chatham, Effingham and Long counties each saw increases, with Bryan and Long each realizing positive domestic net migrations greater than 1,000.
Bryan County’s population gained about 1,000 residents from 2011 to 2012, moving from 31,291 to 32,214, a change of about 2.94 percent.
Liberty County’s population estimate showed only a modest gain of 0.146 percent from 65,375 in 2011 to 65,471 in 2012. But the number was up by 3,000 from 62,773 in 2010.
However, a data set with estimates of the components of resident population change from April 1, 2010, to July 1, 2012, shows that the projected “natural increase” for Liberty County was 2,581, and the county’s growth fell short of that number.
During a Liberty Countywide planning workshop May 30-31, county and municipal leaders acknowledged a declining trend in residence, and they expressed a desire to reverse the effects.
After births and deaths are factored, the result is that Liberty saw a negative net domestic migration of 1,960 from 2010 to 2012.
In the face of declining public-school enrollment — the Liberty County School System once neared 10,500 students, but Interim Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Conley said at the retreat that enrollment was between 9,000 and 10,000 — education officials have tried to identify an outward migration.
Assistant Superintendent Mary Alexander said her department has examined where students enrolled after leaving Liberty County schools, and she was unable to identify a pattern. In early May she provided the board an enrollment count of 9,991 students.
For the school system, the decline equates to a reduction in both state funding based on enrollment numbers and federal impact aid, which is based on the number of “military-connected” students enrolled.
It also affects where teachers are allocated for each school year, Alexander said.
Liberty County Administrator Joey Brown is not so quick to believe reports of losses, which may be perceived as negative by some.
“Most here realize that contrary to those estimates, we continue to grow,” Brown said. “Most successful businesses looking to relocate do not rely solely on Census projections and chose to do a more in-depth analysis of demographics, and I would hope that others will do the same.”
He added that it is encouraging to see the regional growth recognized and believes the region will continue to grow.
On the city perspective, Hinesville’s population from 2011 to 2012 increased by an even narrower margin, according to the estimates, shifting from 34,598 in 2011 to 34,751 in 2012 — an estimated addition of 153 residents.
Hinesville public relations manager Krystal Hart said the numbers are not alarming due to the short period of time identified and the transient nature of Hinesville’s population.
“There may be more deaths than projected, fewer births than projected, more students enrolled in Savannah and Statesboro than pre-2010, or any number of things impacting the data,” Hart said.
She also does not anticipate that the data would affect the city’s eligibility for many federal grants because they typically use 50,000 as a population floor in a metropolitan area to determine eligibility.
Still, growth numbers are useful to municipal planning to ensure infrastructure and service needs are met, she said.
“Since changes in the population cannot be attributed to a specific component and the changes in this referenced report are minimal, at this time, all we can do is keep an eye out for trends and continue doing our best to provide efficient and effective governance.”
The issue still has been addressed, however.
During the planning workshop, Hinesville City Manager Billy Edwards spoke about quality-of-life issues.
“We’ve got one goal, and that is to make Liberty a place of choice to live, work and play,” Edwards said at the retreat.
He presented action plans on behalf of a group that said its chief tasks are to diversify and expand dining, retail and entertainment opportunities; reverse rising crime; and stop the decline of residential neighborhoods.
To do so, the group identified stakeholders who can contribute toward reaching each of the objectives.
“Property owners themselves obviously have a vested interest in making sure that their usually single greatest investment does not decline in value as a result of circumstances beyond their control,” Edwards said, adding that local governments, developers, real-estate agents and businesses also have vested interests.
But Edwards cautioned that the county needs to focus on “enhanced quality growth.”
“Growth for the sake of growth is not necessarily good,” he said. “If it’s not quality growth, we don’t want it.”


 

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