Each Sunday night, behind the brick facade of downtown's The Vineyard church, sits a roomful of local 20-somethings lounging on couches and sipping coffee.
Nearly 100 young adults make up the 11/2-year-old church's nondenominational congregation. The services are informal, lasting about 20 minutes, and take place at night because churchgoers prefer to sleep in on Sunday mornings.
"I think a church should be very much a part of the community it's centered in," said Hanson Carter, pastor of The Vineyard.
His church's community is growing, according to recently released U.S. census data. The area between Seventh and 13th streets had a 17 percent increase in population during the 1990s, thanks largely to the renovation of loft apartments in the area, and is composed primarily of 20- to 30-year-olds such as those that make up The Vineyard's congregation.
The same census data show that the city's overall population increased by only 5 percent during the past decade. While the Broad Street community grew, every other surrounding neighborhood appears to have lost residents, census figures show.
Downtown's census figures serve as an extreme example of a citywide trend that shows some communities thriving while others are dying.
"You went downtown 10 years ago, and most of the buildings were empty," Mr. Carter said. "Now it's growing, and I think it will continue to grow. And for our purpose, that will work quite well because we are targeted toward a demographic that is largely comprised of the people coming downtown now."
Every other downtown neighborhood suffered a population loss during the 1990s. The Olde Town, Laney-Walker and Harrisburg areas lost residents at the highest rate of any Augusta community, each showing a 25 percent or higher loss.
"When you look at the census, you can see where the people are and where they're going," Mayor Bob Young said. "With only a 5 percent greater population, we essentially had people moving around."
Given a statewide population increase of 26 percent, city officials worry that continued stagnation in Augusta could cause the city to lose its status as the state's second largest, deterring future economic development efforts.
Growth and loss
Some parts of Richmond County have seen much higher growth rates than the countywide average of 5 percent. West Augusta grew by 74 percent; south Augusta increased by nearly 50 percent.
Other parts of the county saw widespread loss during the same period, particularly in the county's center, east of Bobby Jones Expressway.
Neighborhoods surrounding Regency Mall, including the Golden Camp Road and Richmond Hills areas, all appear to have lost residents during the past 10 years. Although most of those losses accounted for less than 10 percent of their communities, a nearly 50 percent population increase in the Tobacco Road and Windsor Spring Road areas indicates that residents are choosing to relocate to south Augusta's newer subdivisions instead of reinvesting in older neighborhoods.
"We are a mobile society, and people move," said Ralph Walker, a professor of political science at Augusta State University. "The whole thing is based on economics and space more than anything. Some people are becoming a little more affluent, and when you do that, you like to move into a bigger house and a nicer area."
The city's two growth centers are to the south and the west.
South Augusta is nearly four times larger in area than west Augusta, and census data indicate that the addition of more than 6,000 residents has been largely in what planners classify rural development.
West Augusta, which added about half as many residents, has seen more urban development.
Terri Turner, assistant zoning and development administrator for the Richmond County Planning Commission, said the differences in the two communities' developments can be attributed to the availability of utilities.
"If there are no services, then the state mandates a rather large lot size ... for a recharge area, so you've got big lots," Ms. Turner said. "Out in south Augusta, you might have one family on an acre. But in west Augusta, you might have four families on an acre because of having utilities there and having the zoning in place."
Regardless of whether residential growth is rural or urban, Ms. Turner said, wherever there is substantial residential growth, commercial growth is right behind.
"As people are moving out to that area, the services are following them," she said, citing a new Lowe's home store that recently opened in south Richmond County and the Augusta Exchange center that serves west Augusta. "It's all market driven. You'll find the utilities, then the people, then the services."
Commercial developers say those services sell themselves when the residential demand is there.
Janie Peel, the president of Prime Commercial Properties, developed the Agerton Center shopping strip adjacent to Augusta Exchange and across the street from the Regal Cinema. It took more than a year to close the land deal on the property, which until last year held the home of the Agerton family.
Selling the space to commercial tenants took less than six months - half the time it would take to sell commercial space in a typical retail center - despite the strip charging one of the highest rents in Augusta, Ms. Peel said.
"We predicted that (west Augusta) was going to be the next area to develop, but I did not have the vision to see it was going to be that substantial," she said. "It still has me in awe when I go out there."
The shopping center, located near the intersection of the city's two major arteries - Interstate 20 and Bobby Jones Expressway - also serves the burgeoning Columbia County community, which census figures show grew by more than 23,000 residents, or 35 percent, from 1990 to 2000.
Though they bolster the tax base and encourage additional growth, new homes and new businesses also create challenges for city officials. As more people live and shop in the city's fastest-growing areas, the local government struggles to catch up to that growth with support services, said District 3 Commissioner Steve Shepard.
He said his constituents are beginning to demand services that historically have been available only to residents in the city's urban center.
"They want more roads; they want garbage pickup," Mr. Shepard said. "They're wanting other urban services that the old city has had for a while, and they'll be demanding more."
City officials, including the mayor, say they hope to use census data to establish a master plan for citywide development as residential growth continues to spread west and south.
"We desperately need to do a growth management plan because of the fires being put out in newly developing areas," Mr. Young said. "The data really need to be tied together to some bigger picture. And the census really highlights the need and should put a greater sense of urgency on that."
Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.
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