Johnson City, Kingsport eek out 2015 population gains; demographic issue weighs on local economy

Census data released last week show Johnson City and Kingsport were the only major cities in the seven-county region to gain population in 2015. And in Kingsport’s case, the gain was only 0.1%.

The news follows earlier reports that show Washington County TN was the only county in the region to see a 2015 population increase.



The reports illustrate a demographic situation that is a major factor that will effect the region’s growth and economy for years to come. It’s also a component of the local restructuring from the Great Recession. Restructuring is used instead of recovery because the region’s economy, some businesses, and individuals haven’t recovered. The sad fact is some never will, but that’s another story.

Simply put, the Phase One of the core demographic issue is for every 10 live births in the region there are 13 deaths. That ratio varies a little from county-to-county, but not much. Demographers call that negative natural growth. And it means that the only population increase the region is seeing is from new comers relocating here.

Phase Two is the graying process that the nation is experiencing.

Look at it this way.

At the beginning of 2011, 10,000 of the oldest members of the Baby Boomer Generation turned 65. Since then, and until 2030, 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day.

Since this area’s median age is older than the state or national median we’re on the leading edge of this trend, and it’s an example of when being Number One isn’t much fun.

Here in the Tri-Cities, 130 people a week currently celebrate their 70th birthday. That will continue through 2020. I used 70 instead of 65 because it is quickly becoming the new threshold for retirement – if the individual has a choice in it.



Kingsport Mayor John Clark said at the recent State of the City meeting that his city’s goal is to attract 500 new residents a year. The reason is simple. Kingsport – like other cities – relied on annexation as a growth model until the state legislature pulled the plug on it. Now they have to find another way to grow.

And since the population is the base for local retail sales and services, it has a critical role in a local government budget. In fact, it has earned a place at the economic development table in localities across the nation. That’s especially true in localities like ours where sales taxes are a major source of city and county revenues.

The options are simple. Either growth the population, raise taxes or cut local government employment and reduce services.

The economic and cultural realities of this Gray Tsunami crashing across the region almost endless. For example,

Currently according to Census data, almost 46% of the working age population in the Tri-Cities is not in the labor force. Of course, there are several drivers of this situation, but an aging population is high on the list.

A rule of thumb is the productivity declines with an aging population. That and this region’s restructuring form the Great Recession can be seen in the real GDP of all industries at both local MSAs. That’s important because a more productive population means economic growth.

Kingsport-Bristol’s real GDP moved past its pre-recession peak in  2012. Since then it has declined every year. Compared to 2008 – the year before the Great Recession hit the local economy – it up 0.4%.

The Johnson City MSA real GDP for all industries saw small increases in 2014 and 2015. But it’s still 1.1% less than the pre-recession high.

During the recession, 635 local businesses had closed by 2014.  During the past two years, there’s been a flood of new business opening. It’s encouraging news, and easy to track with new business licenses. But it’s not a complete picture because the number of business closures is not included until the Census Bureau released the 2015 local business patterns data.

Here’s a snapshot of the Tri-Cities demographic makeup based on 2015 Census data.

The GI – or Greatest –  Generation. The youngest at now 85 and they have a 2% share of the total population.

The Silent Generation. The youngest are 70. They account for 11% of the population.

Baby Boomers. The youngest are now 50. They have a 29% share of the local population.

The youngest GenXers are 30. The account for 24% of the local population.

The oldest Millennials are pushing 30, and they have 23% share of the local population.

The Yet-To-Be-Named Generation. The oldest are nine and the account for 5.5% of the local population.





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  1. Johnson City leads region in growth of lower-income households – Core Data