In the last year alone, more than a third of Georgia’s small towns lost population, underscoring the challenges of reviving rural areas, according to an analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show Camilla fell below 5,000 residents, Sparks fell below 2,000, and Fort Gaines dropped below the 1,000-population mark. Milan fell to 661, a loss of nearly 7 percent of its population. All four are in South Georgia.
Georgia's smallest town, Edge Hill, about 45 miles west of Augusta, got even smaller as well. It lost one of its 24 residents last year, according to Census Bureau estimates.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s largest cities got even bigger last year, having no problem pulling in people from small towns and other cities.
“Many of the young people in these communities graduate from high school and don’t come back. They go to college, whatever, they don’t come back,” said David Bridges, president of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton and head of its Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation.
Locally, Statesboro grew from 31,354 residents to 31,667 in the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates and is up more than 3,200 residents since 2010.
Bulloch County’s three other incorporated areas also saw growth in the past year. Brooklet went from 1,610 to 1,706; Portal from 668 to 679; and Register from 183 to 188.
In the past year, Bulloch County grew from 76,084 to 77,296. The 2010 population was 70,217.
In nearby cities, Metter grew from 3,933 to 3,966; Claxton fell slightly from 2,255 to 2,235; Millen dropped in population for the fifth consecutive year, from 2,814 to 2,759; and Sylvania, which has declined in population every year since 2010, dropped from 2,454 residents to 2,445 in the latest estimates.
Atlanta grew more than 1 percent in the past year and is now nearing the half-million-resident mark. The city now boasts 498,044 residents and will cross 500,000 next year if current growth rates continue.
People moving from rural to urban areas is nothing new and isn’t limited just to Georgia – it’s been going on worldwide for more than a century, though there’s been a couple of times when rural towns bounced back a bit.
In recent years, however, the continued population loss has raised questions about whether anything can reverse the trend.
“There’s been this hope that another ‘rural rebound’ will materialize, but the past decade has been really kind of dramatic in terms of rural depopulation nationally,” said Jeffrey Wright, a demographer with the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.
More than half of Georgia’s small towns – with populations under 10,000 – have lost people since 2010, compared to fewer than 1 in 6 of all towns 10,000 and up, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of the census data found.
For example, tiny Pinehurst, in Dooly County in Middle Georgia, lost more than 1 resident in five between 2010 and 2018, the Census Bureau estimated.
Rural residents can face numerous challenges, including access to good jobs, transportation, economic opportunities and health care. Small manufacturing jobs have dried up. Modernization and innovation means fewer people are needed in farming jobs.
Demographers expect there will be a continuing shift of people from rural to urban, Wright said.
But there are some bright spots for small towns as well.
Jackson County, just northeast of Athens, was recently named one of the fastest-growing counties in America by the Census Bureau. Amazon opened an 850,000-square-foot fulfillment center there a couple of years ago.
And a few small towns in rural areas are growing like weeds, including Young Harris near the Georgia-North Carolina line, where the population has swollen by more than 80 percent since 2010.
The fastest-growing city in the state in the previous year: tiny Lake Park on the Florida-Georgia line, which broke 1,000.