JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Northeast Tennessee’s seven counties added an estimated 3,203 people to its population in 2021, a bigger one-year jump than the region has seen in more than a decade, annual U.S. Census Bureau estimates show.

The nine Southwest Virginia counties in the News Channel 11 viewing area, meanwhile, lost more than 2,500 to continue a trend of steadily declining population.

The Northeast Tennessee increases continue a trend that had begun developing the past few years. The annual estimates and the 2020 census show the region grew by almost 13,000 people in the five years from 2016 to 2021.

In the five previous years (2011-2016) the region’s population grew by just 400 people. Two neighboring counties, Sullivan and Hawkins, added more people from 2020 to 2021 than they had the entire previous decade.

“We are thrilled about the growth that we have seen in the last half of this census decade if you will and that trend seems to be continuing,” City of Kingsport Economic Development Director John Rose told News Channel 11 Monday.

The 2021 growth covered five Northeast Tennessee counties, with Carter and Unicoi the only two to lose population. Johnson and Hawkins counties saw the biggest percentage growth at over 1% each, while the bulk of the growth in raw numbers came from Sullivan (1,173) and Washington (1,156) counties.

Regionwide, the estimated growth rate of 0.63% would translate to 6.3% growth over a decade. The official 2020 census showed 2.2% growth from 2010 to 2020, with the vast majority coming from Washington County.

Northeast Tennessee’s estimated population growth was much closer to the state average in 2021 than it had been the previous decade.

“We have a national builder in the area and some regional builders that’s been here for years,” Rose said. “They do a lot of data research and they show that … Northeast Tennessee, our region, shows the potential to continue some of this growth we’re seeing.”

Three counties had growth rates above the state average of 0.8%. Johnson and Hawkins grew by 1.1% each and Washington County grew by 0.9%. Carter and Unicoi, though, posted growth rates among the six lowest of the state’s 95 counties.

Sullivan County’s increase nearly equaled its total growth of 1,340 over the previous 10 years. Combined with neighboring Hawkins County’s increase of 619 people, compared to a loss of 112 the previous decade, the two counties added 46% more residents in one year than they had over the entire previous decade.

Rose said officials in Kingsport have spoken with a number of people who have moved to Hawkins County and they aren’t all moving to the outskirts or within the city limits of Kingsport on the county’s east end. He said those transplants are coming from around the country and quite a few are living in unincorporated and more rural parts of Hawkins.

Rose said the regionwide growth didn’t surprise him based on what’s happening in his own city, where about 2,500 housing units are in the pipeline. City officials there use data from Move To Kingsport, a subsidiary of the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce, which provides deep dives into who is moving, family sizes, where people are coming from and more.

Northeast Tennessee’s population growth rate has accelerated the past few years after a stagnant period. (WJHL Photo)

He said strong growth statistics — Kingsport grew 15% from 48,205 in 2010 to 55,442 in 2020 — are maintaining their pace and that growth isn’t just a result of annexation nor is it being offset by population losses elsewhere.

Rose said the region’s low tax rates are one real difference maker.

“An attractive property tax rate, no income tax – that’s very attractive to people moving to the area.”

One subdivision with 64 new housing units has become home to people from 17 different states.

The other big factor, Rose said, is one that just about any community likes to crow about: quality of life.

No such turnaround appears to be occurring in Southwest Virginia, at least not yet. Despite ongoing economic development and diversification efforts, the region continued a pattern of steady population decline.

After dropping almost 9% from 2010 to the 2020 census, Southwest Virginia lost another 0.9% over the past year. All nine counties and the two independent cities of Bristol and Norton had estimated losses in population.

Southwest Virginia was home to more than 310,000 people in 2010 and even more in 2000. The estimates released March 24 put that population at just under 282,000.