Bartholomew County is seeing population gains that are larger than most counties statewide, but at a manageable rate — a good sign as the community tries to meet its workforce needs, Columbus’ mayor said.
Bartholomew is the sixth-fastest-growing county in Indiana, in terms of percentage growth, from 2010-2016, according to population data released by the U.S. Census Bureau and analyzed by the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
The data showed that Bartholomew County experienced an estimated 5.9 percent population gain from July 1, 2010 to July 1, 2016. That growth figure was exceeded by only a handful of counties:
The number of people that Bartholomew County gained during that time period, 4,557, ranked 11th in the state. But the growth relative to the total population reflected a faster rate than most other counties.
Bartholomew County grew from an estimated 76,845 residents in 2010 to 81,402 in 2016, which ranks it 19th in the state among total county populations.
“You don’t want to grow too fast, but I am convinced we need to grow. Something like 1 percent per year seems fine,” Mayor Jim Lienhoop said.
During his 2015 mayoral campaign, Lienhoop said a population growth rate in the low single digits would be a sustainable pace to provide workers needed by local businesses, but not outpace the city’s ability to expand and provide services such as garbage collection and sanitary sewers, or put too great a stress on local schools.
A manageable growth rate also is preferable, Lienhoop said, so that the community’s housing inventory has a chance to keep up.
The city has started a talent-attraction campaign aimed at drawing young adults to Columbus for economic opportunities, and primarily to fill existing job openings, Lienhoop said. The unemployment rate is so low locally — it was 3.5 percent in January, third lowest in Indiana — that it means Bartholomew County is essentially at full employment, prompting strategies such as the talent-attraction campaign to meet the needs of employers.
While Bartholomew County ranked as one of the fastest growing counties from 2010-16, it’s growth slowed noticeably from 2015-16, as the county gained just 391 people — the fewest of any year during that period, a 0.5 percent gain. The county’s percentage gain exceeded the state’s 0.3 percent growth for 2015-16, however.
The slowdown is likely tied to the trend of the U.S. economy, which slowed after growing pretty quickly, Lienhoop said. He also said slow growth is still positive.
“I think it points out the Columbus community, including the county, is a desirable place to live,” the mayor said.
Bartholomew County’s previous lowest gain during the six-year period was 564 residents, from 2012-13.
The highest gain was 1,301 from 2011-12, a 1.7 percent increase. That was due primarily to a migration increase of 906 people, a period when major employers in Columbus were adding hundreds of jobs each.
Slow growth is more appealing than losing population, Lienhoop said.
“We need to keep taking steps forward. Trying to manage decline is not something anyone is excited about,” the mayor said.
Bartholomew County’s slowdown in population growth last year mirrors a statewide trend.
Nearly 75 percent of counties statewide experienced a level of population change that was lower than its average annual change from 2000 to 2010, according to a Kelley School of Business news release. Also, 53 of the state’s 92 counties lost population from 2015 to 2016.
“The causes of Indiana’s sluggish growth of late have been both a strong decline in the natural increase of the population, which is a measure of the difference between the number of births and the number of deaths, and a significant slowdown in migration,” said Matt Kinghorn, a demographer at the Indiana Business Research Center.
He added that the state has experienced a net out-migration of residents — more moving away than moving in — each of the past two years.
Last year, 63 Indiana counties experienced a net out-migration, and the state as a whole has experienced such a trend four of the past seven years, according to the data.