Lee County leaders question growth report

Mar. 24, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

Even though the number of North Carolina counties losing population is close to seven times what it was a decade ago, Lee County is reportedly not only growing but is actually the 10th-fastest-growing county in the state.

According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released this month, Lee County was estimated to have grown by 1,849 people to a population of 59,715 — equaling 3.2 percent growth — between April 2010 (when the last official count was taken) and July 2012. North Carolina’s total population grew by 2.3 percent in that period, and the U.S. population grew by 1.7 percent.

But the local news came as a surprise to some.

Bob Joyce, president of the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce, said he thinks the Census Bureau drastically overestimated the amount of growth in Lee County, although he did say the county appears to at least be growing somewhat.

“I think those projections are off,” he said. “There’s just no empirical data that shows we are growing at that pace.”

Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack had an even starker view than Joyce.

“We’ve actually had some regression — not growth — over the last year or so,” Womack said.

Both men said other measures, such as new home sales, apartment vacancy rates, retail sales and public school enrollment, indicate slow growth at best since 2010 — certainly not a 3.2 percent increase in those two years. Public school enrollment in Lee County, for example, increased by about 2.1 percent from 2010-2012.Don Kovasckitz, director of Lee County Strategic Services, said he couldn’t vouch for how inaccurate or accurate the census projections were, although he did say population growth from 2011-2012 in Lee County was about 1.6 percent.

Womack noted that population is naturally difficult to estimate, although he did make one general prediction based on his experience as chairman of the state’s Mining and Energy Commission: “In about 18 months to 24 months, (Lee County) will be in the top five growth areas in the state... and certainly among the top five micropolitan areas in the state,” Womack said. Sanford and certain areas of the county just outside city limits make up a micropolitan area, which the Census Bureau defines as an urban cluster of between 10,000 and 49,999 people.

According to a separate Census Bureau report filed in mid-March, most of the fastest growing counties and micropolitan areas in the country are in the Great Plains, with growth fueled at least partially by oil and gas operations. That includes natural gas exploration and drilling, for which Womack’s committee has been tasked with suggesting regulations and which is expected to focus heavily on Lee County.

Womack said he expects similar growth spurts locally once North Carolina’s moratorium on hydraulic fracturing is lifted in the next year or two, also predicting increases in wages, tax income, property values and employment in addition to population. But for now, he said, he’s just not seeing the reported growth.

Lee County Manager John Crumpton was so surprised by the alleged growth rate that he even questioned the source of the data.

“From a tax perspective, we’re not seeing the growth,” Crumpton said. “We’re not seeing that type of growth in sales taxes; we’re not seeing that type of growth in property taxes.”

Pam Gordon, a local real estate agent and president of the board of directors for the Sanford Area Association of Realtors, looked up home sales over the last few years and said she doesn’t know if the county has grown or not, but that there has been no noteworthy increase in home sales.

“Really it was about the same as usual, and does not show nearly that kind of growth,” she said. “Those people must be renting. They’re not buying — the numbers are the same.”

Joyce, however, said apartment occupancy rates haven’t changed much and that few new units have been built, and Gordon did note that Lee County is currently a buyer’s market, with low interest rates and an abundance of properties on the market.

Joyce added that rapid growth can actually be harmful, so an exaggerated census report isn’t necessarily bad news. He gave Harnett County as an example, which at 5.5 percent growth from 2010-12 was reportedly the second-fastest-growing county in the state. It’s facing the need for five new schools — and thus millions of dollars to build them — according to an update that Billy Tart, chairman of the county’s board of education, gave to the Harnett County Commissioners in September.

Joyce said annual growth of between 2 and 2.5 percent would be ideal, and that while Lee County isn’t there yet, the Chamber and the Lee County Economic Development Corporation will be merging and working to promote growth in the near future.

“We will talk about some of the ways that we can try to grow at a stronger rate,” he said. “You know, we don’t want boom/bust cycles. That’s not good for communities.”