After playing Pepsi to Atlanta’s Coke as the state’s second-largest city since the mid-1990s, the latest U.S. census estimates put the Garden City third behind Columbus/Muscogee in population. According to 2012 estimates, Columbus’ population is 198,413 residents – or 541 more than the city of Augusta.
But the key word, said one Augusta official, is estimates.
“One-time projections are not a major concern to me,” said Mayor Deke Copenhaver, who is aware of the numbers but doesn’t put too much stock into what some call “soft data.”
Augusta’s population became a hot topic last week when Georgia Regents University President Ricardo Azziz told state system Board of Regents members that the city had seen a 10 percent decrease in residents. In actuality, Richmond County had grown by 6 percent from 1990 to the last official census in 2010.
And, the official census count matters most when making proclamations of where a city ranks in terms of population, said a spokeswoman with the federal agency that keeps tally.
“For official purposes, determining the state’s second-largest city would be based off the 2010 census, because that is the last full count of the population,” said Virginia Hyer, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Census Bureau.
Given that, Augusta holds on to its No. 2 position behind Atlanta. The 2010 census put the city of Augusta’s population at 195,844, nearly 6,000 more than Columbus.
But, Augusta’s stay at No. 2 won’t last much longer, said Columbus Mayor Teresa Tomlinson.
That’s because 20,000 soldiers and civilians have moved to her area, mostly because of Defense Department base realignment, she said.
Tomlinson expects the estimates to remain steady until 2020, when she says her city will officially claim its spot as Georgia’s second-largest.
“To an extent, there is competition, but it is a healthy competition,” said Tomlinson, who has a close relationship with Copenhaver and considers Augusta and Columbus sister cities.
How each city counts its population does play a role in where it ranks. Columbus counts all of Muscogee County, which it consolidated with in 1971, whereas Augusta, which became a consolidated government when it merged with Richmond County in 1996, doesn’t count residents in the county’s other two municipalities.
So yes, blame the confusion on Blythe and Hephzibah, which declined a chance to become part of the consolidated city government.
“Oh definitely,” Blythe Mayor Pro Tem Emory Myers said when asked whether his town is still happy about not merging with Augusta. “We are an older community that likes having its own way of doing business and enjoys being independent.”
Hyer said population projections provide accurate and reliable data, but added that they are not a precise door-to-door head count, such as the ones taken every 10 years by the Census Bureau.
“The census is counting everybody at their homes,” she said. “Our population estimates, which we do annually, use the most recent census as a base, but then we take into account deaths, births and migration from different sources to see where things are headed for individual places.”
Federal documents show estimates are calculated using birth, death and migration records collected by the National Center for Health Statistics, American Community Survey and Defense Manpower Data Center.
And though being the second-largest city in the state might be a source of pride to some, economic development officials say the label doesn’t carry much tangible weight.
“What businesses want to know about the community is its workforce,” said Walter Sprouse, the executive director of the Augusta Economic Development Authority, who noted St. Petersburg is the fourth-most-populous city in Florida, but because of its large number of retirees, is rarely seen as a strong candidate for new industry.
“They want to know about training, transportation, traffic flow, utilities and quality of life. Somewhere along the line, maybe on Page 11, they’ll ask what population stats (are) from the last census and we give it to them. That’s it.”
But that hasn’t stopped the city from using the No. 2 ranking as a marketing tool. In the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce’s business and lifestyle guide, the city is introduced as Georgia’s second-largest and the heart of a metropolitan area that includes a half million people.
Margaret Woodard, the executive director of the Downtown Augusta Economic Development Authority, said city leaders don’t often bring it up.
“A lot of people don’t know Augusta is the second-largest city,” she said. “Many assume it’s Savannah or Columbus, and only if asked, would we say we are the second-largest city.”