Washington Co. TN and Hawkins Co. lead Tri-Cities 2016 population growth

A county-level drill down on Census Bureau current population change estimated adds some dimension and a surprise or two. Earlier this week I did a report on the Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) 2015-2016 population changes that showed a continuation of a familiar trend line. Johnson City MSA is growing while Kingsport-Bristol is struggling.


Looking at the numbers on a county level shows Sullivan County held its own last year but just barely with a six-person gain. The surprise was Hawkins County was the MSA’s growth hot spot. It had a population gain of 120 people – the second-best growth in the seven-county Tri-Cities region.

The two Virginia counties in the four-county region put the brakes on a slow growth positive for the two Tennessee counties and sank the MSA into the population loss category. Washington County VA had an 80-person loss while Scott County took the region’s largest population loss, down 230.

Washington County Tennessee maintained its standing as the Tri-Cities’ population growth center with a gain of 1,083 people.  Carter County also added to the Johnson City MSA’s three-county population position. It registered a gain of 72 people. Gains in Washington and Carter counties was enough to make up for Unicoi County’s 101-person loss.

The bottom line for the seven-county region was a gain of 870 people.

It’s not the growth many would like to see, but it’s better than the population losses that many areas on the nation’s interior and rural areas are feeling. The principal driver for the shift is a simple fact that the population is not growth fast enough to replentish itself.  Baby Boomers are aging and although mortality rates have increased death rates are higher than birth rates in many areas – including the Tri-Cities. During the 2015-2016 Census tracking period there were 4,900 births in the Tri-Cities and 6,131 deaths. The population gain came from people moving to the area to work or retire.

Population growth and economic development are rapidly emerging as a unified concern for some local leaders. Sustaining and growing the population base took on a heightened focus when the state Legislature put the brakes on the forced annexation law that had been the principal growth tool for many cities.


When that law was changed, it forced the focus to demographic issues that had been lurking in the background for years. More than a few local leaders had to come to terms with growth figures that they touted relied only on annexations and were a thing of the past.

Kingsport has the highest profile effort to grow its population. Mayor John Clark is on record saying the city’s goal is to grow its population by 500 people a year.

Other local cities have a new resident recruiting program that dovetails with state efforts.

What’s absent in the population growth arena is  the same thing that’s absent in economic development. The region’s cities and counties are basically operating as separate entities.

During the most recent Eastman Chemical Company, regional leaders breakfast CEO Mark Costa reaffirmed an economic development pitch from the company’s position. According to a Kingsport Times-News report, he told the audience, “We have to figure out how we continue to attract business to this area. That’s the challenge we all face collectively, right? So how do we put together compelling packages economically … is what we need to work on. When people come to Tennessee, it’s drawing a lot of business from other states. They have choices. They can come here, they can go to Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis. So how do we make ourselves a more attractive destination? That’s a huge opportunity for us because we haven’t done as much of that as I think we can do.”

Costa emphasized the Tri-Cities have to work together in economic development.

“Any one city, frankly, doesn’t have the scale by itself to be compelling,” he observed. “As a region, I think we can be very compelling. We have to have a regional mentality about this. I have felt strongly about that since the time I came into this job.

“No matter where the plant goes, we all win. There’s a huge multiplier effect … for every job we create, we probably create about 10 jobs in small business and services that surround us … we need to pick up the pace.”