By Kerria Weaver
Many rural North Carolina counties grew during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic as remote work and housing prices caused many people to rethink where they live.
But much of that growth happened in rural counties near the coast and the mountains and on the outskirts of the state’s largest cities, according to a new report from the NC Rural Center.
In the Border Belt region of southeastern North Carolina, Bladen, Columbus, and Scotland counties didn’t see upticks in population. However, the loss of residents slowed dramatically between 2020 and 2022 compared to the prior decade, data shows.
Bladen County saw an average population decline of 1.55% each year between 2010 and 2020, according to the report. In 2020-2021, the county saw a drop of only 0.2%; the following year brought a drop of 0.4%.
Robeson County actually saw some growth, with the population increasing by 0.37% in 2021-2022. The uptick was minimal but welcome news for a county that lost more residents than any other in the state between 2010 and 2020.
While the growth is a good sign, the NC Rural Center’s report tempered expectations for a major rebound for the state’s least-populated areas.
“Despite the recent positive population trends for many of our rural counties, problems after a decade of population loss – loss that was rather significant for many of our rural counties – will not be solved thanks to a couple years of population growth,” the report says. “Rather, sustained population growth will allow rural counties to better position themselves for future economic development.”
Cities and suburbs continued to drive most of the state’s growth during the pandemic, the data shows. The state’s six urban counties saw an average population increase of 1.9% in 2020-2021 and 1.5% the following year. Sixteen suburban counties saw average increases of 1.5% and 1.34%.
The state’s 78 rural counties saw average upticks of 0.7% and 0.94% during the same period, data shows.
But rural growth was mostly concentrated in far western North Carolina and near the beach. (Brunswick County, for example, saw its population increase by 5.7% in 2021-2022.)
A large swath of rural northeastern counties saw population loss.
Dalton Bailey, a data manager for the NC Rural Center, said many rural counties, including those in southeastern North Carolina, have limited access to broadband, health care and other services that attract newcomers, including retirees and remote workers.
“There's a variety of things that a lot of our rural communities throughout the state struggle with,” Bailey said. “A lot of the research that we do is trying to find ways we can piece together not a fix-all but something to just support our communities.”
A limited housing supply remains a barrier to growth in the Border Belt, seven years after Hurricane Matthew and five years after Hurricane Florence destroyed many homes.
Jan Maynor, a special projects planner with the Lumber River Council of Governments, said the storms were a major culprit of the drastic population decline in Robeson County, now home to about 116,000 people.
“We lost public housing and a lot of private housing units during the hurricane. We couldn’t find places for people to stay,” Maynor said. “Some of our senior citizens decided not to stay after the storm and went to other homes with their families.”
For some counties, growth is on the way.
Columbus County is set to get more than 1,000 new homes near the state line. County Manager Eddie Madden said the development will increase the population over the next decade.
Increased access to high-speed internet could help spur growth. N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis announced Monday that the state will get $1.53 billion to expand broadband. He did not say which areas of the state will benefit.
Meanwhile, Bailey said America seems to be shifting back to pre-pandemic trends of urban migration. Hybrid work schedules that require some in-person meetings could play a role, he said, and the influx of people who retired early and flocked to rural areas during the pandemic will likely slow.
“Whether or not the recent rural population growth will be sustainable is uncertain,” the NC Rural Center report says. “Virtual work and hybrid schedules appear to be becoming
entrenched in employment, but will working people continue to relocate to surrounding rural areas?”