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Macon loses bragging rights for fastest growing county

Macon County isn’t exactly asking for a recount, but officials here do want to know why the county’s 2010 census numbers fell well short of what they expected — call it more of a pointed request that federal census workers review their data.

After all, Macon might well be the Western North Carolina county that put the most concentrated effort into accurately counting every single resident. County Manager Jack Horton and Planner Derek Roland held census information meetings, such as speaking in front of the League of Women Voters prior to the census, on how important getting an accurate count would prove in the next decade when it comes to Macon County’s financial wellbeing.

The two men explained the U.S. Census determines the amount of money the community might get to support hospitals, job-training centers, schools and more. It directly affects the county’s cut of sale tax revenue. For the town of Franklin, population dictates how much it gets from the state for building sidewalks.

And, they emphasized at that luncheon, the data would help determine elected representation at both the state and federal level. To that end, in an effort to ensure an accurate number, Macon County formed a Complete Count Committee made up of local officials and residents.


So what happened?

Horton said he was taken aback last week when the U.S. government released the numbers. Here’s what they showed: Macon County, once touted as one of North Carolina’s fastest-growing counties, simply isn’t that anymore, if the 2010 U.S. census numbers are correct. Macon County lagged behind growth rates posted by neighboring Jackson and Clay counties (noting that when you are as small as Clay County, which went from 8,775 people to 10,587, the percentages are heightened by significantly smaller numbers of people moving in than would be true for larger communities).

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Here’s the hard numbers: Macon County grew over the last decade by about 14 percent, with 33,922 people living there. Jackson County had an almost 22 percent growth during that same period, Clay County nearly 21 percent. That increase on either side of the Macon County’s borders frankly strikes Horton as strange — what happened to the growth rate in Macon County, which just a decade ago was chugging along at a 27-percent increase?

Some of that growth-rate decline might just be attributable to the “hidden” residents of Macon County, said longtime county manager and Franklin native Sam Greenwood, who after retiring from county government promptly went back into public service as the town’s manager.

Maybe even more residents are hiding, or not exactly hiding, but more and more Macon County residents perhaps technically live out of state yet are spending ample time in Macon County. Enough time, certainly, to burden a public-service system that receives state and federal funding for far fewer souls, as recorded by U.S. Census counters.

Greenwood, tired of anecdotal evidence and strong suspicions on this very subject, about four years ago encouraged a Western Carolina University student interning with Macon County to review the data. The student, using tax records, electrical hookups and such, found that local government was really providing services to just more than 59,000 residents. About 35,500 of those were fulltime (a higher number, you’ll note, than the just released census number, even discarding any part-time and seasonal residency, as the federal government does).

Brian McClellan, chairman of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, said the census showed his county clearly needs to diversify its economic base. Macon County was too reliant, he said, on the home building and real estate sector. Additionally, with discretionary income taking a hit in a sour economic climate, the jobs spurred by tourism that might have attracted newcomers also decreased.

“Jackson County has a university with all the attendant jobs that entails,” said McClellan, a financial advisor in Highlands for Edward Jones. “Even in a difficult economic period, it’s just not hit as hard as other parts of the economy. That university is certainly a very good thing for them, and they have a bigger hospital — people don’t quit getting sick in a poor economy.”

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