Out on a house-shopping trip, Daniel and Christina Stephens stood inside a National Hills home Friday, saying they want their first house together to be in Richmond County.
"Richmond County has the older houses, and they have the better features," Mrs. Stephens said, adding that the schools for the National Hills area are good.
But the couple, who live in Augusta, are not representative of what seems to be the trend in recent years.
Updated census figures released this week show a striking contrast in population shifts between other areas and Augusta.
While Georgia experienced growth that was among the largest in the nation and Columbia County has boomed with new residents, since 2000 Augusta has experienced a population decline.
"I'm not very surprised," said Sonny Reece, Richmond County's chief tax appraiser, who has seen Augusta's tax digest drop a half-percent in 2003 and flatline so far this year. Columbia County's tax digest is expected to grow by 6 percent in its next fiscal year.
According to the new city census figures, from April 2000 to July 2003, Augusta lost 1,866 people, a 1 percent drop.
Richmond County population figures from 2002 to 2003, which include Hephzibah and Blythe, show a loss of 10 residents.
During the same time span, Columbia County gained 2,559 residents, or 2.7 percent, bringing its population to 97,505. Aiken County's population grew 2.8 percent with 146,736 residents.
Overall, Georgia saw its population increase by 140,710 from 2002 to 2003, taking its population to near 8.7 million.
"I think (a population shift from Richmond County) is evident by a decline in our commercial property values, which are based on income," Mr. Reece said.
"You're seeing the trend of commercial properties starting to move to Columbia County - and Aiken, for that matter."
Jeff Keller III, of Century 21 Jeff Keller Realty, said he also has seen that trend.
"The commercial real estate market on this side of town is awful," he said, referring to Augusta.
But the latest figures showing Augusta with a loss of residents came as a surprise to Gayla Moore, a vice president for Meybohm Realtors in Augusta. She said that although Columbia County is booming, she thought Augusta would show at least some growth.
"I'm really surprised," she said. "A lot of people can't afford Columbia County."
Indeed, Rob Sherman, the director of Augusta-Richmond County's License and Inspection Department, said construction permits have increased during the past few years in Augusta, from 535 in 2001 to 656 in 2003. So far, through May this year, he said there have been 328 permits - 20 more than for the same period last year.
Mr. Sherman said many of the permits are for new town homes, which are considered entry-level residences, typically for individuals or smaller families.
Augusta Commissioner Tommy Boyles said Friday that part of the problem is people's desire to buy newer homes and larger lots, and Columbia County has plenty to offer.
"I think we're missing a segment of the real estate market here," he said.
And whether it is perception or truth, many agree that those looking for a new home see Columbia County as offering better schools and shopping possibilities.
"If people had a choice, same house, same price, they would want to live next to Target," Mr. Keller said. There are plans to have a Target shopping center built on Washington Road in Columbia County.
Shopping areas popping up in Columbia County have been a top concern of Augusta Commissioner Bobby Hankerson.
"We'd better get ready," he said. "I'm very concerned when I hear a new (business) name opening up and they say 'We're in Evans or Martinez.'"
The ultimate result of people leaving Augusta, Mr. Reece said, will be a larger tax burden on those who stay.
"With the digest flat and services remaining the same and cost of living going up, the commissioners are going to have to raise the millage rate at least by enough to offset the cost of living," he said.
Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the NUMBERS
City census numbers from April 2000 to July 2003:
Augusta: down 1,866, 1 percent, to 193,316
Savannah: down 4,211, 3 percent, to 127,573
Athens: up 2,232, 2.2 percent, to 102,498
Atlanta: up 6,578, 1.6 percent, to 423,019
Columbus: down 589, 0.3 percent, to 185,702
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