Originally created 02/23/98

City size varies by source

Everybody knows Atlanta is Georgia's largest city. We don't need statistics and figures to tell us that -- just look at it.

But who's second?

Once again, that depends.

Augustans often claim the second-place spot with pride. Slowly, grudgingly, some statewide sources are beginning to agree. But each year seems to bring yet another report that knocks Augusta out of her rightful spot behind Atlanta -- and all based on numbers that are outdated even as they're freshly published.

For example, the 1997 Georgia County Guide ranks Augusta 11th in population -- behind Albany, Athens, Columbus, Macon, Marietta, Savannah, Warner Robins and Valdosta, to name a few.

But wait, you say -- I know Augusta's bigger than Valdosta!

And you're right. This particular ranking measures population only within the city limits -- counting just 43,459 Augustans. And the figures are from 1994 -- the most recent numbers available, but not the most accurate. Two years after those figures were collected, Augusta and Richmond County consolidated into one government, tremendously increasing "Augusta's" population.

"You'd be number two," said Doug Bachtel, a rural sociologist at the University of Georgia and expert in Georgia demographics. "Augusta always was a small city -- the actual, physical city limits always have been small. And I would imagine that there's quite a few that don't know you've consolidated, and what that actually means."

You also have to consider how each report or guidebook defines "city" to understand these rankings, Dr. Bachtel said. Some of the cities that supposedly have Augusta beaten are actually considered part of the metro area of a larger city -- Marietta, for example, is included as part of Atlanta's metro area, and Warner Robins is part of Macon's.

Augusta's official Metropolitan Statistical Area -- defined by the federal government -- consists of Richmond, Columbia and McDuffie counties in Georgia along with Edgefield and Aiken counties in South Carolina. At an estimated population of 468,305, it is the state's second-largest metro area. Macon -- including Bibb, Jones, Twiggs, Houston and Peach counties -- is next at 310,133.

But even that is deceiving.

Macon actually is Georgia's fourth-largest city, trailing Columbus-Muscogee, which consolidated in 1971. With so much time gone by, Columbus doesn't usually run into the misconceptions about its size that Augusta is still hitting. Athens-Clarke County, merged in 1991, has a population of about 90,000 and therefore doesn't worry about proving it belongs among the state's largest cities.

"Does Augusta end at the city limits, or does it end at the state line? If you're in Thomson, is that Augusta?" Dr. Bachtel asked. "It all depends on how we define it -- which is the fun part."

But how it's all defined also means money for each city, because size does matter when it comes to economic development, grants and various programs that look at population, officials said.

"Oh, absolutely," said Augusta Mayor Larry Sconyers. "That's why we encourage everybody to use the current, updated figures."

Companies want to be where there's the greatest number of human and business resources, so being the second-largest city in a state that grows with Georgia's pace can be enticing, Dr. Bachtel said.

"With that comes a new responsibility," he said. "You've sort of entered the big leagues: More people are going to be looking at you, decisions are going to have to be well-thought-out and planned. You're right up there in the spotlight."

The bigger the city, the bigger the available work force for new businesses, said Marty Blubaugh, Metro Augusta Chamber of Commerce vice president for economic development and marketing. And it logically follows that larger cities have more resources of all types available.

"Say you're a manufacturing company," Mr. Blubaugh said. "If you're in a larger community, it's easier to find a forklift repair shop. It's easier to find vendors who sell uniforms and towels and all the things you need to keep machinery running and to keep your facility equipped and stocked up."

Mr. Blubaugh said the figure the chamber uses for Augusta's city population -- which, since consolidation, includes the bulk of Richmond County -- is 227,000, a figure provided by private demographic research company Woods and Poole.

The census bureau's Richmond County estimate, 193,000, would still rank Augusta as Georgia's second-largest city, but because the census figures are projections based on information collected in 1990 and estimated using past growth rates, Mr. Blubaugh feels that the information provided by the private researchers is more accurate.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sconyers and some of his staff keep watch on the guidebooks, maps and reports, calling publishers every time they see anything but "Augusta" listed as No. 2. The number of calls they've had to make has decreased lately, but the problem persists, Mr. Sconyers said.

"We all assumed that when Augusta became the second-largest city in the state that everybody would know -- but everybody didn't know and it's taken a little bit of time to get around," he said.

Staff Writer Kelly Daniel contributed to this article.


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