Population in 10 Tri-Cities towns and cities up; major cities see largest gains; drill down shows unexpected items


Ten towns and cities in the Tri-Cities metro area saw 2018 population gains. Some losses – or gains – from 2017 were in the single digits. But almost all of it went to Johnson City and Kingsport. And while any population gain is good news, it doesn’t reverse the region’s stagnant population issue.

A drill-down on Census’s 2018 population estimates for towns and cities puts some unexpected metrics shifts in play without changing the overall dynamics of a region struggling with the realities of being a super-aged region. A super-aged community is one where one in five residents is 65 or older. Some public and civic leaders are now pointing to it as a headwind holding back economic development and the overall economy. That’s fact, but the big picture is not as simple as saying the population is declining.

Here are some of the metrics that both fly in the face of what is sometimes considered common knowledge.

2010-2018 population for Tri-Cities towns and cities. Clicking on chart renders larger file.

Kingsport has the highest year-over-year growth rates for the second straight year. It’s not significant enough to blow the doors off the Model City’s demographic woes, but it’s positive ground that has mostly been under the public radar.

At the same time, Johnson City and Jonesborough are the only two jurisdictions with a consistent positive eight-year growth trend line. The other jurisdictions have a roller coaster trend with the number of people arching above then dropping below the zero percent line.

While there are multiple factors to what has given Kingsport the region’s best year-over-year population gain rates, one factor is Sullivan County had a higher birth rate gain than Washington County for 2016 and 2017. At the same time, it had a smaller year-over-year death rate gain in 2017. But that’s only ripples in the larger demographic sea change. Area-wide the death rate is still higher than the birth rate which means the bulk of population change is driven by new residents moving in, and the retention rate – how many young people stay and how many seek greener pastures outside the Tri-Cities metro area.

The population trend lines for area Combined Statistical Areas show how the Tri-Cities is performing in relation to its neighbors.

Although there are numerous efforts by local governments and the state of Tennessee to attract new residents, there’s little to no public hard data about how well those efforts and the public funds used for them have performed. However, there’s one ETSU study that throws some light on the issue. A telephone survey of new residents found 64% of all respondents had no previous ties to the area, and of the retiree households contacted 64% had previous ties to the area and moved back. Almost half of the respondents said the region’s low cost of living was a major factor in their decision to relocate hear.

Region-wide the population increased 0.2% last year (1,238 people). That’s the weakest growth rate among the surrounding metro areas. It also fits the pattern for other economic indicators that show the Tri-Cities lags the economic performance of its neighboring areas. That points to structural issues that have not responded to economic development efforts.

An almost silver lining to the Tri-Cities’ stagnant population growth trend is the growth rate has clawed its way slightly higher for the past three years. But before anyone breaks out the champagne and starts singing “Happy Days Are Here Again” the growth numbers are microscopic in a region with a little more than 500,000 residents where the strongest growth picture is of elders.

Population growth is also concentrating in the metro regions of the two largest cities – Johnson City and Kingsport. The Twin Cities (Bristol TN-VA) is the exception. Its population numbers are not reflective of the cities’ economic gains of late.  The year-over-year total has been negative for two years.

The numbers for this report come from the Census Bureau’s population estimates for towns and cities. It followed the release for counties. That report is capsuled in “Report shows county population growth; losses in Tri-Cities; Washington Co. TN, Sullivan, Greene see most local growth.

The next release will be the American Community Survey one-year studies in a couple of months, followed by the five-year report later this year. The one-year report will offer more precise, current conditions for a wide range of population, housing, and economic topics. While the five-year report doesn’t reflect the most current conditions, it includes areas with smaller populations and is a good trend metric. Reports on the region’s total 2018 total economic output (Gross Domestic Product) are expected late this year along with the County Business Patterns report.

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