Calhoun County’s cities and towns either shrank in population or saw flat growth last year, the latest in a years-long trend for the area, according to a federal report released today.
The out-migration of people is in line with the loss of many high-paying manufacturing jobs, particularly in the defense industry, in the years following 2008’s Great Recession. The population decline is a trend not lost on some local political candidates this year, who say reversing the outflow of people should be a top priority. Some economists say completing such a task is easier said than done, usually requiring a major influx of new industry or developing new attractions such as tourism.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Anniston shrank the most in the county between 2016 and 2017. Still, Anniston remained the most-populated city in the county last year, with an estimated 590 more residents than Oxford, the second-largest city. Oxford had minor growth, year over year.
Jacksonville, Piedmont and Weaver also saw slight population declines last year.
The population across the county has seen a steady decline over the past decade. Some local political candidates have taken notice this year, citing the need for a growing population as an economic driver.
Ahmad Ijaz, economist for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, said attracting people into an area is a difficult feat to accomplish.
“It’s difficult because different people are demanding certain jobs ... usually high-wage and manufacturing,” Ijaz said. “You have to give someone an incentive to move.”
Ijaz said offering enough tax incentives could help attract a large factory to an area like Anniston or Oxford. However, any area offering high tax incentives should make sure they have the necessary workforce for whatever industry is moving in, Ijaz said.
“If you don’t have a trained workforce, that industry will have to hire a number of people from outside the area,” Ijaz said. “It doesn’t make sense to give tax breaks, only for the company to bring in workers from outside.”
Ijaz said political leaders should make sure their areas have sufficient workforce development programs.
Keivan Deravi, economist at Auburn University Montgomery, said there are four main ways for a city to garner population growth. A city needs at least one to see any gains.
One way a city can grow is by being next to a major interstate, Deravi said. Oxford has benefitted from its access to Interstate 20, mostly in retail development over the years.
Other things that can help a city grow include being close to a state capitol, being near a major metropolitan area or having a large research university.
“Barring that, you need to somehow bring in a major industry or create something outside those four things,” Deravi said. “Tourism can help with that ... you need something to draw people in.”
Anniston has tried for years to foster itself as a destination for cyclists and ecotourism, with so far mixed results.
Bill Fielding, dean of the school of business and industry at Jacksonville State University, said an area’s population won’t grow until its economy grows. And more economic growth could soon be in the county’s future, Fielding said.
“The national economy is growing at an unexpectedly high rate right now,” Fielding said. “If the national economy grows, you could see that improvement in the state economy, and then some growth in the county ... but it’s hard to really say.”
Fielding noted that, other than adding more jobs that people want, another way to grow the population is to attract retirees.
“They don’t work jobs, but they’ve already got income,” Fielding said. “That could be a tremendous benefit.”
Don Hopper, executive director of the Calhoun County Economic Development Council, said that while the population decline is a concern, the county has started to see job growth in recent years.
“Over 2,000 jobs have been announced in our area in the last four years,” Hopper said. “But a lot of those jobs are still not online.”
For instance, last year Canada-based transit bus manufacturer New Flyer announced a $15.1 million, 47,000 square-foot expansion at its Anniston plant that would create 21 jobs.
Hopper said the county isn’t the only community in the state and country dealing with population decline and the need to attract workers and industry.
“Workforce continues to be near or at the top of the list of what companies need,” Hopper said. “As the economy improves, we must work to find ways to help improve and train our workforce for industries.”