Atlanta’s population surpasses 5 million

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/22/07

Finally, a city big enough for all those Peachtrees.

Metro Atlanta marks a milestone today as the U.S. Census Bureau reports that it surged past 5 million people last year. According to the bureau’s county population estimates, the 28-county metro area — known officially as the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta Metropolitan Statistical Area — showed a population of 5,138,223.
Rich Addicks/Staff

If it seems these seven-figure announcements are coming faster, it’s because they are.

It took 122 years from the founding of Atlanta for the area to reach 1 million people in 1959. The second million came 21 years later in 1980. The third million took 13 years, the fourth million seven years and the fifth million less than six years.

The population ticker at the Darlington Apartments in Buckhead, a landmark that has tracked the area’s growth since the 1960s, was unable to keep up Wednesday. At midmorning, the tally read: 4,83-,—9. Not only was it out of date, but three digits were on the fritz.

Population milestones used to be occasions for civic hoopla in Atlanta. Now that the area’s growth has earned it an international reputation for sprawl, local leaders are more measured in their attitudes.

The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, whose predecessor designated an Ohio newcomer as “Mr. Million” in 1959 and sent him on a nationwide tour to talk up the city, plans no observance for 5 million. Chamber President Sam Williams issued a statement that mentioned quality-of-life issues as much as economic success.

Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, who also chairs the Atlanta Regional Commission planning agency, said reaching 5 million made him think of all the traffic he sees when he drives to visit local governments. “It makes me think that we need a multimodal transportation plan in this state now, not 10 years from now.”

The metro population was barely 2 million when Olens moved here in 1980 to attend Emory Law School.

Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition business group, found the news “exciting” and remembered how he celebrated the metro area’s 1.5 millionth resident as Atlanta mayor in the early ’70s by presenting a bottle of champagne to the parents of a newborn at Piedmont Hospital. But he also remembered a scene from the ’60s when Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. noticed that the office wall where he displayed ceremonial shovels from groundbreakings was getting full.

“Sam,” he said, “we may have done too good a job.”

The census news didn’t surprise current Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, whose city, which has added more than 50,000 residents this decade, still represents less than 10 percent of the metro population.

“Atlanta is hot,” she said, predicting that the area would eventually reach 8 million if traffic and water resources are managed wisely.

The metro population was less than a third of what it is today when Franklin moved here in 1972.

With the new census figures, Atlanta now ranks as the nation’s ninth largest metro area, behind Washington.

The census includes 28 counties in its definition of metro Atlanta, up eight counties from the footprint in place during the 2000 count. The definition is based on commuting patterns. Other agencies such as the ARC recognize a smaller area and consequently report lower population figures.

Without the eight additional counties, Atlanta would have fallen just short of 5 million.

The report shows that 12 of the nation’s 100 fastest-growing counties since 2000 are in metro Atlanta. They appear at every point on the compass: Forsyth, Cherokee, Dawson and Pickens to the north; Henry and Coweta to the south; Newton, Gwinnett, Walton and Barrow to the east; Douglas and Paulding to the west. In sheer numbers, Gwinnett led the way with a gain of 168,656 since 2000.

After decades of lopsided growth on Atlanta’s Northside, the report confirms that development appears to be evening out. “It’s a function of land availability,” said ARC demographer Mike Alexander. “The amount of land isn’t what it used to be on the Northside.”

In all, the census found, metro Atlanta’s population grew by more than 166,000 from July 1, 2005, to July 1, 2006 — more than in any year this decade.

One of the reasons for the higher numbers: the influx of Gulf Coast evacuees fleeing Hurricane Katrina. While the report does not specify where people came from, the Federal Emergency Management Agency estimated a year after the storm that 84,000 evacuees were living in the Atlanta area.

Sheila Robinson, a cook at Just Loaf’n, a New Orleans-style po’ boy shop near Oakland Cemetery in southeast Atlanta, is one of them. After Katrina flooded her home near the New Orleans airport, she fled to a Holiday Inn in Henry County and now lives in an apartment with her two sons.

“I still might go home,” she said as she plunged a basket of shrimp into hot oil, “but I might decide to stay. I like it here.”

Her boss, Louisiana native Darren Williams, knows dozens of people living in the Atlanta area who were displaced by Katrina. Some of them crowd his restaurant for weekend crawfish boils, their eyes occasionally moistening as they taste the flavors and listen to the music of home. Even so, many are planning to stay. “They’ve found that life is better here,” he said.

Longtime Atlantans want to keep it that way, however big the metro area gets.

“All this growth is a two-sided coin,” said Joel Babbit, chief creative officer for the Grey Worldwide Atlanta marketing firm, who has promoted the city for years and is handling the current Brand Atlanta marketing campaign. “You get more vitality, but you get more traffic, too.”

Babbit, an Atlanta native, admitted that he preferred the pace of the smaller town he grew up in. But he likes the restaurants and shopping and attractions of the much larger modern Atlanta.

“Growth is inevitable,” he said. “You just have to go with it and make the best of it. That, or you move.”

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