South Carolina

Beaufort County ranked among nation's 20 fastest-growing metros

The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News

A one-year population increase of about 4,700 people has landed the combined Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Beaufort area on a list of fastest-growing metropolitan areas from 2013 to 2014.

The region's population grew 2.4 percent, ranking its growth 13th in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which released the July 1, 2013, to July 1, 2014, population estimates Thursday.

The Myrtle Beach area was ranked second in the country for overall growth -- just after Florida's The Villages -- with a 3.2 percent spike. Charleston-North Charleston, the only other metropolitan area to make the cut in South Carolina, ranked 17th.

A steady stream of new residents is nothing new to the Lowcountry.

Last year, the statistical area composed of Beaufort and Jasper counties had the fourth-fastest growing population along the East Coast, according to the Census Bureau.

Much of the population climb can be traced to the area's retirement and military communities, said Ginnie Kozak, planning director for the Lowcountry Council of Governments. While that's been true for years, she said, more people are consistently drawn in by new developments, such as the U.S. Marine Corps' F-35B pilot training program. Last year, a few dozen people moved to the Beaufort area from England to train on the fleet.

Overall, Kozak added, the Lowcountry region -- including Beaufort and Jasper counties and portions of Colleton and Hampton counties -- had 5,000 more workers in January 2015 compared to a year before.

The council has also approved sewers for 735 new homes to date in 2015, she said. None had been approved this time last year.

"It's sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy," Kozak said. "When an area starts picking up economically, it attracts other people who come looking for jobs."

Tourism has continued to thrive as well. With the opening of Anchorage 1770 in downtown Beaufort this spring, the city is gaining its first new hotel in three years, according to Robb Wells, tourism director for the Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Many of the area's visitors not only return another year, they make Beaufort a regular destination, he said.

About a quarter of all visitors surveyed over the past three years said they were coming to Beaufort for at least the fifth time, Wells said. Often, that leads to people relocating in their retirement.

"At that point, we know they're going to become something other than just a visitor," he said.

While Beaufort has seen modest growth in recent years, nearly a quarter of the population increase from 2010 to 2013 occurred on Hilton Head Island, with 2,300 more people calling the town home, according to the Census Bureau. Bluffton gained 628 people, and the city of Beaufort grew by 524.

The boom has brought some strains along with its benefits.

Beaufort Memorial Hospital expanded its emergency room two years ago due to population growth and increased access to health insurance, spokeswoman Courtney McDermott said.

The old department was built to accommodate only 25,000 visits each year. From October 2013 to September 2014, the ER saw about 45,000 visits.

"We were seeing the trend just moving upward and upward and upward," she said. "That's when the hospital said, 'We've got to make this a priority. It's only going to continue to grow.'"

Beaufort County public schools have had to make adjustments as well.

In September, the school year began with 664 more students enrolled with the district than the year before. Eighty percent of the growth was in southern Beaufort County.

To keep pace, the district plans to open River Ridge Academy, a new prekindergarten through eighth-grade school, along Davis Road in greater Bluffton next year with about 850 to 1,000 students. The new May River High School in the New Riverside area should open in Fall 2016 with 1,000 to 1,100 students.

In northern Beaufort County, the district is building a four-classroom addition to Battery Creek High School, with its career and technical-education building, superintendent Jeff Moss said. Whale Branch Elementary School also reached capacity this fall and will be sending kindergartners to Davis Early Childhood Center next year, he said.

"Fairly soon, we may need to figure out what to do with Whale Branch (next)," Moss said.

The district has also set aside some land for a new middle school and a new elementary school next to May River High, Foster said.

"What they've tried to do is be forward looking and anticipate growth," Foster said of the extra land. "Even if we don't need it now, in the future, it'll be available. Because it's going to happen. It's inevitable."

Click or tap here to see the Census Bureau's report.

The 20 fastest-growing metro areas, July 1, 2013 to July 1, 2014

1. The Villages, Fla., 5.4 percent

2. Myrtle Beach, 3.2 percent

3. Austin, Texas, 3 percent

4. Odessa, Texas, 2.9 percent

5. St. George, Utah, 2.9 percent

6. Fort Myers, Fla., 2.7 percent

7. Bend, Ore., 2.7 percent

8. Greeley, Colo., 2.6 percent

9. Midland, Texas, 2.6 percent

10. Naples, Fla., 2.5 percent

11. Houston, Texas, 2.5 percent

12. Fort Collins, Colo., 2.4 percent

13. Beaufort, 2.4 percent

14.Daphne, Ala., 2.4 percent

15. Raleigh, N.C., 2.3 percent

16. Orlando, Fla., 2.2 percent

17. Charleston, 2.2 percent

18. Sarasota, Fla., 2.2 percent

19. Panama City, Fla., 2.2 percent

20. Boise City, Idaho, 2.1 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

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