Metro Columbus population cracks 300,000 residents

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 30, 2013 

At first glance, the latest U.S. Census Burea estimates are eye-popping.

Chattahoochee County in Georgia added population at a 10 percent rate from July 2011 to July 2012, making it the fastest growing county in the nation.

Russell County in Alabama, at 5 percent, came in ninth in the nation and tops in Alabama, followed statewide by nearby Lee County.

And the Columbus metropolitan statistical area -- which includes both of those counties -- is ranked the ninth fastest-growing MSA in the U.S. at 2.9 percent.

There can be only one conclusion: The Columbus area did get a major population boost from the last Base Realignment and Closure round that shifted Armor School troops, civilians and family members from Fort Knox, Ky., to Fort Benning.

"It's just the BRAC effect. We've seen it go down when soldiers get deployed, and we've seen it skyrocket when they come back," said Chattahoochee County manager Thomas Weaver, pointing out that 82 percent of Chattahoochee County is Fort Benning.

In fact, some might argue that the Columbus area did not pick up as much population growth from BRAC as expected from estimates that were already downsized from nearly 30,000 people to 20,000 as the Armor School was getting settled here by the mandated September 2011 deadline.

Ledger-Enquirer calculations of U.S. Census estimates from 2010 to 2012 indicate the Columbus metro area grew by 15,666 people, rising from a population of 294,865 to 310,531, higher by 5.3 percent.

The metro area includes Muscogee, Harris, Chattahoochee and Marion counties in Georgia, as well as Russell in Alabama.

But the numbers also show that Lee County, which is its own metro area in Alabama, picked up 7,000 new residents over those two years. Troup County, home of the Kia auto assembly plant, added more than 1,400 residents.

Adding all of those counties together shows the region gained just under 24,000 residents over the last two years, with the grand total at 560,320, an increase of 4.4 percent.

"I certainly would have guessed that our growth rate was pretty sudden and sharp, just because of that Fort Benning factor," said Jack Key, a partner in the real-estate firm Coldwell Banker/Kennon, Parker, Duncan & Key. He also is a past chair of the Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce.

"I know the whole BRAC effect was not nearly what everybody thought that it might be," he said. "But it did have a very, very positive impact -- on housing, on rentals, on consumer spending in the area. It was a big help at a difficult time."

While Columbus proper likely would have seen some population growth even without BRAC, the area that experienced a huge military impact was the unincorporated community of Fort Mitchell in southeast Russell County.

Located near the back gate of Fort Benning, large subdivisions popped up quickly to cater to arriving soldiers and civilians looking for large new homes at a less-expensive price.

A number of builders from the Atlanta area dived in to fill the need.

Greg Smith, chief inspector with the Russell County Building Inspection Department, said most of the growth in the county -- 4,873 residents from 2010 to 2012 -- came in the Fort Mitchell area.

"I would say pretty near 100 percent of that's in Fort Mitchell," he said. "It's slowed down. We don't have as many builders there. But we've got a couple that are still building pretty steady -- 10 or 15 or 20 permits at a time. They've told me they're all sold and they've just got to get them built."

It all boils down to a noticeable increase in congestion in most areas of the metro area, testing the city's infrastructure.

It's nowhere near what residents of the Atlanta area experience day in and day out.

But streets do have more traffic, restaurants have more patrons, and homes and apartments are still being built.

"I attribute that to business activity in Columbus is back to normal," said Dave Erickson of the activity in the Columbus market. The president of the Greater Columbus Homebuilders Association and president of Grayhawk Homes, expects to sell 200 homes this year locally.

"I think we've more than prepared for that," he said of the city's infrastructure. "We've got enough housing and apartments. Our road network is certainly capable of handling it. I don't think we're overtaxed anywhere except in some spots where infrastructure is still catching up, such as the intersection (of Veterans Parkway and Whittlesey Boulevard)."

Of course, economics 101 teaches students that balloons that inflate can, and often do, pop.

That's what Key fears with the U.S. Army's recent evaluation of its operations at Fort Benning -- as well as other installations -- setting up the possibility of a painful drawdown.

Most notably, a coming post-war reduction in U.S. forces threatens to take away a 4,000-person combat brigade at Fort Benning and the civilian workers and family members that go with that.

A study indicated that could subtract more than 17,000 of the area's population base.

"I hear rumors that maybe it's not going to happen," Key said. "But I fear that all of the cuts are in motion and that it's inevitable we're going to see some reductions. And I'm afraid that the 3rd Brigade is at risk and that's going to hit us pretty hard."

One slight consolation: The latest round of BRAC, or military reductions, is not scheduled for completion until the year 2020.

Either way, Weaver, who oversees the current fastest-growing county in America, said Chattahoochee County will be just fine.

"We're happy to see the little bit of growth that we have had," he said. "But we still have kept our small-town identity."

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