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Decatur's population
gain sags

Priceville, other neighbor cities do well; job growth suspected

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

Huntsville is the engine driving population growth in North Alabama, but Decatur is struggling to get out of neutral.

That's the indication from U.S. Census Bureau figures issued Wednesday and published by the State Data Center at The University of Alabama.

Between 2000 and 2006, Decatur was 152nd out of 456 Alabama cities in population growth, according to Census Bureau figures.

Decatur grew 3.1 percent during the six years, compared to statewide growth of 3.4 percent.

Other area municipalities fared better.

Priceville, at 45 percent, was the seventh fastest growing municipality in the state. Athens was 34th with 15.5 percent growth over six years. Hartselle, ranked No. 62, grew 9.4 percent.

Definite conclusions require more than raw census data, said one economist, but Decatur's minimal growth could be a reflection of a stagnating economy.

"In Decatur there are a lot of residents employed in the industries of Morgan County," said Jeff S. Thompson, senior business adviser with the Office for Economic Development at The University of Alabama in Huntsville, who recently has done consulting work for the Morgan County Economic Development Association.

"The population is based on where people live, not where they work," Thompson continued. "If jobs are added, the population is going to go up. If jobs aren't added, the population will be stagnant."

That is, Decatur residents tend to work in Decatur, not Huntsville. If Decatur's population is not changing, then — unlike Huntsville — Decatur probably is not seeing job growth.

Priceville, on the other hand, with a higher percentage of residents working in Huntsville, can see population growth even in the absence of job growth.

Annette Jones Watters, manager of the State Data Center, also suspected a correlation between population changes and job growth.

The fast-growing cities, Watters said, "are stealing from other places. The supply will go to where the demand is. If you are offering good jobs at high wages, people are going to come from other places to take those jobs."

Cause for concern

They do not appear to be coming to Decatur, and that could be cause for concern.

"There are some bright spots in the data," Thompson said. "There are some areas that I would have hoped to see doing better, Decatur being one of those. Given the robustness of the Alabama economy and the national economy, we would hope that the next six years will bring a higher rate of population growth for Decatur."

Dramatic percentage changes in cities with small populations are not always significant, Thomson said, but Decatur is big enough that its minimal growth deserves attention.

"When you've got a (population) leader like Decatur that is relatively flat — half a percent per year on average — then growth that is happening in other Morgan County (municipalities) is probably being spurred by things that are happening outside the city limits of Decatur," Thompson said.

Moulton grew 0.1 percent since 2000, ranking it 217th in the state. Courtland's population shrank by 1 percent and had a rank of 265. Trinity gained only 139 residents, but that translated to an 8 percent increase.

Huntsville grew at 5.5 percent over six years, 112th in the state. By number of people, though, it grew more than any city in the state.

Many cities around Huntsville grew quickly, apparently serving as bedroom communities for Huntsville's exploding work force.

Madison, for example, grew 25.9 percent (ranked 23), with Owens Cross Roads jumping 22.4 percent. Madison also had the third-largest total influx of residents in the state.

Thompson said the new data has particular significance in comparing various communities because it represents a full business cycle, from peak to valley to peak.

"It's probably representative of what's going on in the communities," Thompson said.

Thompson cautioned that the data has shortcomings.

First, he said, it shows population changes only within municipalities. There may be considerable growth in areas outside municipalities, particularly around Huntsville.

East Limestone County likely is an example. It has experienced explosive growth, largely from residents who commute to Huntsville, but its unincorporated areas do not show up in the population figures.

Thompson also cautioned that the Census figures are merely estimates, with the next physical tally to take place in 2010.

"Probably really good estimates," Thompson said, "but they are just estimates."

Watters said she does not see the fact that Decatur population growth is trailing the state's growth as significant.

"I would not stress about that," Watters said.

"I think 3.1 percent growth is a very nice number. It shows healthy growth. Huntsville's (higher) growth sometimes puts stresses on the infrastructure there."

Calera leads growth

At 161 percent, Calera — south of Birmingham — was the fastest growing city in the state. Birmingham was near the bottom, though, losing 5.4 percent of its population since 2000. Like Calera, Pelham — which grew 39.8 percent — seemed to benefit from a Birmingham residential exodus.

The same pattern seemed evident around Mobile, which lost 3.2 percent of its population while nearby Fairhope grew 28.5 percent.

The top four cities in the state are, in order, Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile and Huntsville.

The Census estimates showed population changes from April 1, 2000, through July 1, 2006.

Population increases

Rank City/town Percent increase

7 Priceville 45%

23 Madison 25.9%

34 Athens 15.5%

62 Hartselle 9.4%

74 Trinity 8.0%

112 Huntsville 5.5%

152 Decatur 3.1%

217 Moulton 0.1%

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