U.S. Census figures released Wednesday show Calhoun County's population shrank last year, extending a 2011 trend that, if it continues, could stifle the area's economic growth.
The census estimates show the county lost 2,037 residents between 2010 and 2012. The population decline comes after growth in the previous decade and corresponds with the loss of hundreds of military industry-related jobs in the area. Some economic experts say the county can withstand a prolonged population decline and still attract industry due to its prime location and skilled workforce. Other experts, however, say a steep population decline could cause interested industries to look elsewhere in the state.
According to the Census Bureau’s estimates, the county's population decreased to 117,296 in 2012 from 118,572 in 2010, a loss of 1,276 residents. The county lost an estimated 757 residents in 2011. In contrast, the county grew by more than 6,000 residents in the previous decade.
Population estimates for all of the county’s cities and towns declined, too, except for Weaver. That city saw its population rise by 30 residents, about 1 percent.
The county's population decline is in contrast to the state average, which had a gain of more than 42,000 residents in 2012.
Robert Robicheaux, chairman of the department of marketing, industrial distribution and economics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said a continued steady population decline could hurt the county's economic prospects.
"It's difficult for a community like that to attract new businesses," Robicheaux said. "Finance and retail, they don't come in when they see a recent population decline and a decline in buying power."
Don Hopper, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council, said the county could still lure in new industry despite a significant population decline, however.
"Companies are going to look at what the workforce is, if there is a trainable workforce," Hopper said. "We continue to have a real good workforce ... we have a really good skill base for manufacturing and that's the companies we continue to talk to."
Skilled labor is still available, however, due to a loss of manufacturing jobs in recent years. The county has lost hundreds of military industry jobs in the past two years, including at the Anniston Army Depot, due to the drawdowns of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and federal budget cuts. Hundreds more jobs have been lost as work has ended at the depot's chemical weapons incinerator.
Keivan Deravi, economist with Auburn University Montgomery, said the county's population woes are likely directly related to the local economy.
"A loss of jobs is the main reason why the population is declining," Deravi said. "Generally speaking, population growth has to be driven by economic growth."
Robicheaux agreed that economic factors are likely the main cause of the county's recent population decline.
"A setback in the economy caused some people to relocate," Robicheaux said. "Sure, many didn't want to have to move but did."
Deravi said a significant population drop could give some companies pause when considering locating in the county.
"Population certainly plays a critical role ... its critical to have a certain mass of people that gives businesses the ability to prosper and gives incoming businesses a workforce to draw from," Deravi said.
Steve Sewell, executive vice president for the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, which works to attract and maintain industry in the state, said the county will continue to see opportunities for economic development even if the population declines further.
"The population will still be ample and Calhoun County, with its strategic position between Birmingham and Atlanta and proximity to major manufacturing facilities like Honda, its going to get looks," Sewell said. "I don't think there will be cause for alarm there in terms of economic development."
The latest census statistics indicate a shrinking county population, but the numbers will not impact metropolitan and transportation planning in the area, at least for the foreseeable future, said Jack Plunk, principal planner with the East Alabama Regional Planning and Development Commission. The commission provides multiple services to its member local governments, including funding for road improvements and transportation planning support through its Metropolitan Planning Organization.
Plunk said the commission regularly uses census population data in its work, but only exact population counts, not estimates. The last exact population count came with the 2010 census, with the next count coming in the 2020 census.
"Right now, we'll be sticking with what our 2010 population is," Plunk said. "Our population went up by 6,000 people according to the 2010 census and that's good for the MPO ... but when 2020 comes, then we'll have to take those numbers."
Staff Writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.
Calhoun County 2012 population estimates
Calhoun County: 117,296
Hobson City: 762