JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The region’s growth has been evident to anyone driving around and seeing subdivisions and townhouses or apartments rising out of former pastureland. Thursday, a federal agency put some black-and-white numbers behind it, and two local leaders talked about the opportunities and challenges in front of it.
One-year population growth in Northeast Tennessee reached levels last year — 6,275 people — that it hadn’t seen in a quarter century, U.S. Census data released Thursday show. That’s more than the entire period from 2010 through 2019 when the seven-county region grew by just 5,891 people.
“We’re just excited that people are seeing the value of living in East Tennessee and they’re coming here and they’re bringing their wealth, they’re bringing their opportunities for education and they’re bringing their careers and jobs,” Washington County-Johnson City-Jonesborough Chamber of Commerce CEO Bob Cantler told News Channel 11. “We’re seeing a lot more remote workers, we’re seeing people start new businesses — it’s very exciting from that standpoint.”
Washington County led the pack in total numbers and in growth rate, adding 2,647 people for a 2.0% growth rate. That was well above Tennessee’s statewide average of 1.2% — which itself was the 11th-highest in the country.
“I think it speaks to the rich quality of life that we have in Johnson City and that more folks are recognizing that and want that kind of lifestyle that we have to offer here,” Johnson City City Manager Cathy Ball said Thursday.
But after roughly two decades of Washington County enjoying the region’s only measurable growth, the post-pandemic “reset” has brought growth to surrounding counties as well.
Washington County accounted for more than 90% of the 10,822 people that were added to the region from 2010-2020. The other six counties (Sullivan, Greene, Hawkins, Carter, Johnson, Unicoi) added just 814 people during that time, with four of them losing population.
In 2022, the other counties grew by 3,628 people. Sullivan County added 1,653, Greene County 802 and Hawkins County 786. Instead of the minuscule 8% of Northeast Tennessee growth they accounted for through the last decade, those counties contributed 58% of the 2022 growth.
“It’s important that the whole region see that growth happen,” Johnson City City Manager Cathy Ball said. “I think it brings success to all of us, so I was glad to see that those numbers are getting more balanced.”
Housing starts in Kingsport (Sullivan County) exceeded those in Johnson City by a significant margin in 2022, pointing to more balancing likely ahead.
The challenges — Infrastructure, housing stock, workforce
Both Cantler and Ball were quick to point out several things they say could throw a monkey wrench in the recent pattern: inadequate infrastructure, an insufficient supply of affordable housing and not enough workers to fill the available jobs.
“We’ve got to be prepared that our infrastructure catches up to where we need,” Cantler said. “We know there’s growth areas in Gray that need a lot of work from the Department of Transportation. Throughout the area of Johnson City, we just need to evaluate schools, fire, police departments.”
If the area’s governments don’t get that right, Ball said, traffic snarls, utility troubles and the like “will cause folks to get frustrated with growth and not view the positive sides of growth.”
Ball said sales tax revenues have been very strong the past few years, but if growth continues, she didn’t rule out the possibility of fee or tax increases.
“We’re going to have to explore that to see if we need to look at those fees in order to have a gradual increase to be able to support not only just the growth, but the quality of services that we provide,” she said. “It is very normal that those would be looked at anyway even without this level of growth.”
One place where some public dollars might go is into helping incentivize the construction of housing that’s within the price range of middle-income people. Greene County is the only county within the region that falls within the “affordable” range in the Federal Reserve’s Home Ownership Affordability Monitor, meaning its median monthly home payment is less than 30% of the median household income.
The Johnson City metro (Washington, Carter and Unicoi counties) fell into the “unaffordable” range in April 2022 and Kingsport (Sullivan and Hawkins) moved into that territory a month later.
“When you see growth happening, that tends to drive up the cost of housing, rental and purchase price,” Ball said. “We see that happening. We are exploring ways of how we – what role we can play in terms of keeping housing affordable.”
That could include the use of payment in lieu of tax incentives if housing is provided at lower rates over time. It could include bundling city-owned land and selling it with deed restrictions requiring affordable housing prices.
“It doesn’t happen fast,” Ball said. “Even when we bring these concepts to mind, a big part of it is making sure we have the development community on board because we still need those developers to provide that housing.”
Whether housing prices have anything to do with it, leaders are also concerned about having enough people around to fill jobs.
“Our death rate still surpasses our birth rate,” Cantler said. “We also know that there’s going to be some challenges of less (fewer people) going to college in the next few years … We need enough of the workforce age demographic to fill the positions that our industries and organizations need here today.”
Cantler pointed to collaboration among local schools on career technical education and the Chamber’s own programs designed to help recruit and retain young professionals as ways the region is trying to make the region attractive to working-age folk.
“The whole intent of that is to retain and attract 21-39-year-olds into the market,” Cantler said. “We partner with our industry and business leaders to say ‘what are you looking for and how can we help you recruit the specific people that you need to have in this market?'”
Despite potential slowdowns in the economy and higher interest rates, Cantler thinks the current trajectory could continue if residential construction keeps up.
“Until we can build more house homes, we’re gonna be challenged with supply and demand,” he said. “But if we get that balance more in check, I still feel there’s a strong growth opportunity for Johnson City and Washington County for the next 10 years.”
For her part, Ball believes intergovernmental collaboration will be a key to success as Johnson City, Washington County and Jonesborough all grapple with the changes.
“Making sure that we have really strong relationships with our partners, have strong relationships with our utility companies is important,” she said. “And it’s even more important, we want to provide a continuation of services. We know that most citizens don’t know political boundary limits, so it is so important that our citizens feel like we’re connected, that we all know what we’re doing and that we have a shared vision.”