Census estimates released today show that Richmond County’s population decreased by nearly 670 residents in 2013, again raising suspicion that Augusta’s status as Georgia’s second-largest city could be lost to Columbus by the end of the decade.
Buffered by a high birth rate in the past, Richmond County’s population decreased from 202,672 residents in 2012 to 202,003 in 2013, with much of the decline coming from a negative migration rate.
Census data show that 1,756 more people left Richmond County than moved to the area last year. Those leaving offset the 1,075 additional births in the county when matched to deaths. Hephzibah and Blythe were included in population estimates for Richmond County, census spokeswoman Virginia Hyer said.
“I see this as sort of a blip on the radar,” Augusta Mayor Deke Copenhaver said of the data, predicting significant growth in future years with the consolidation of Georgia Regents University, the expansion of Plant Vogtle in Burke County and the relocation of the Army Cyber Command to Fort Gordon by 2019.
Beyond a blow to Augusta’s ego, the changing population pattern could have practical and political implications on how millions of dollars in federal and state funding are shared among Georgia cities for projects involving highway planning and construction, public aid for housing, and health care and educational programs.
Muscogee County, which also is consolidated and includes no incorporated towns outside Columbus, has been closing in on Augusta for years, and the latest census estimate put its population ahead of Richmond
County’s – 202,824 residents.
Hyer said population totals recorded in 2010 remain the benchmark for measuring Georgia’s largest cities, and Copenhaver said he is not worried about losing Augusta’s No. 2 ranking when a new census is conducted in 2020. As a whole, Augusta’s seven-county metropolitan area continues to thrive, increasing from a population of 576,500 in 2012 to 580,270 residents in 2013.
Large-scale manufacturing and retail jobs are bringing big groups of people to the area, but much of the growth is coming to Columbia and Aiken counties, which, according to census data, is a more appealing place to live than Richmond County.
More than 2,800 people moved to Columbia County than left it in 2013, and the trend was similar for Aiken County, where relocation saw a net gain of 568 residents. Muscogee County had 2,481 more people move in than away in 2013.
At the rate Columbia County is growing– 3,000 to 4,000 a year– some studies have argued that it could become the population center of the Augusta metro area in the future. Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson cautioned against putting stock into projections and comparing population growth in Columbia and Richmond counties.
“Columbia County has been blessed with growth for many years, and rather than it be perceived as a negative for someone else, we like to think of it as a testament to the work our leaders have done to build a community where people like to work, live and raise a family,” Johnson said.
Copenhaver agreed, saying that before he took office, projections showed Augusta was losing population and as a result, its tax base. Since then, he said, economic development and neighborhood revitalization efforts have helped the area improve.
“You have to have a team working on it, but trend lines can be moved and I believe we have done that here in Augusta,” the mayor