In a reversal of a trend, U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that growth in the core urban counties of North Carolina is getting outpaced by some of their suburban counties.

And some North Carolina counties are seeing higher growth that reflects the area’s popularity among retirees.

“Brunswick County is an example of both at the same time,” said Keith Debbage, a professor of geography at UNC-Greensboro. “It is attracting retirees and attracting urban overspill out of Wilmington. Looking at some of the data that was released, there is no doubt that the real winners are suburban and retirement destinations.”

During the earlier part of the current decade, the overwhelming population growth was in the central counties of each metropolitan area: Mecklenburg in metro Charlotte, Wake and Durham in the Triangle, Forsyth and Guilford counties in the Triad and Buncombe in Asheville.

That’s changed, according to new county-level population estimates released Thursday by the Census Bureau. In the past several years, some suburban counties have been picking up in growth and surpassing the central counties in percentage gains, if not raw numbers.

In the Triad, for instance, 91 percent of the population growth was in Forsyth and Guilford counties from 2010 to 2016. But for the period from July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017, the two counties together accounted for only 70 percent of the growth.

In the Triangle, Wake and Durham counties accounted for 76 percent of the population growth from 2010 to 2016, but in 2016-17, were down to 66 percent of the growth.

In Charlotte, 53 percent of the growth in the metro area occurred in Mecklenburg County from 2010 to 2016, that county received only 39 percent of the 2016-17 growth.

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In metro Asheville, Buncombe County accounted for 64 percent of the growth from 2010 to 2016, but was down to 40 percent of the growth from 2016 to 2017.

And it’s not like those core counties have gone into a tailspin: Wake, Mecklenburg, Durham and most of the others still have strong growth rates. Forsyth County turned in its best rate of growth since the 2010 Census, and Guilford growth remained steady, if not spectacular.

Debbage doesn’t think the new numbers spell a pause or plateau in the trend of central city new urbanism, as exemplified by downtown Winston-Salem.

“The American economy is capable of handling multiple growth trajectories,” Debbage said. “When you look at middle management and middle-aged people, a lot of that is powering the suburban growth. The millennials are still seeking out those urban core counties.

For some suburban counties, the growth rates in the new estimates are a return to form. Davie County, once one of the fastest-growing counties in the Triad, actually showed population declines in 2012 and 2014 — something unheard of.

Davie rebounded in 2016-17, placing third in percentage growth among Triad counties.

Of course, percentages have to be taken with a grain of salt: Johnston County, near Raleigh, led Triangle counties with a growth rate of nearly 3 percent in 2016-17, but the addition of 5,600 people that figure represented was dwarfed by the 23,000 additional people in Wake County, which grew 2.2 percent for the year.

Yet, there has been a slight cooling in central county growth in the Charlotte, Triangle and Asheville metro areas. The 19,900 additional people Mecklenburg County added in 2016-17 was the smallest numerical increase in any year since the 2010 Census. During most years, Mecklenburg County added some 23,000 people.

And 2016-17 was the first year since the 2010 Census in which Durham County added fewer than 5,000 people in a single year.

Looking at how all the counties on the North Carolina coast have grown, one might be tempted to think that the beach is the single and simple explanation.

There’s more to it than that in Brunswick County, according to Kirstie Dixon, the county’s planning director. There’s the beach, retirees, spillover from nearby Wilmington, which is to the east, and the presence of Myrtle Beach right over the South Carolina border. In fact, the federal government considers Brunswick County to be part of the metro Myrtle Beach area, not metro Wilmington.

Brunswick County grew 17 percent from 2010 to 2016, the fastest rate in the state, and was fastest from 2016 to 2017 as well, growing 3.6 percent in the single year.

The town of Leland, Brunswick’s largest, is a suburb of Wilmington that grew 33 percent between 2010 and 2016.

Dixon said the completion of Interstate 140, a Wilmington bypass, has stimulated some of the growth.

“We do anticipate a lot more growth based on that road, since there are not a lot of bridges over the Cape Fear River, Dixon said.

Almost 200 miles north of Brunswick County lies Northampton County, which lost almost 10 percent of its population between 2010 and 2017.

Jim Gossip, who sits on the town board in Jackson, the county seat, said that substandard schools and a lack of job opportunities are holding back Northampton County as well as a number of other counties declining in northeastern North Carolina.

“So when our young people go away to college to get an education, there is not a lot of opportunity for them to come back here. Even though they perhaps desire to come back, the opportunities for them are scarce.”

Of the 34 counties that lost population between 2016 and 2017, 24 of them were in the east. But there were 15 counties in the Piedmont and mountain counties that gained population from 2016-17, after losing population between 2010 and 2016.

In some cases the population growths in the west were very small, but Debbage said the numbers are nonetheless evidence of “a lot of good news in the data.”

“Some of these foothill counties are textile and furniture counties that have seen some negative growth,” Debbage said. “But any kind of growth at all for some of those counties is big news.”

Many counties in the west have become retirement destinations, and that seems to be intensifying, Debbage said.

Looking closer at the Triad, one difference emerges between growth trends here and in Charlotte and the Triangle: Where Wake and Mecklenburg counties are surrounded by counties that have contributed to metropolitan growth, Forsyth and Guilford are surrounded by counties that for the most part have declined or grown only slowly.

Here’s why, according to Debbage:

“Charlotte is a single-center metropolitan area so you have that mass spillover from out of that one county,” Debbage said. “In the Triangle you have a white-hot regional economy with out-of-sight income and skill sets, and those people have the kind of money to hit the suburbs early.”

By contrast, Debbage said, the Triad’s three cities dilute the impact of any one place, so there’s not as much suburban spillover.

But one trend worth watching is the growing affinity between Alamance County and the Triangle, Debbage said. Alamance is part of the Triad’s combined statistical area, but the Triangle is encroaching from the east, with Mebane, on the line between Alamance and Orange counties, “a pivot point for the Triad and the Triangle.”

“The Triad and the Triangle are starting to interlock,” Debbage said. “Ultimately, the Triad and Triangle will be one mega-region.”

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Wesley Young is a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal.

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