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Huntsville Could Be Alabama’s Largest City by 2022

Demographers with Huntsville project the city slipping past Mobile in two years, passing Montgomery in four years and growing larger than Birmingham by 2022.

Tue December 08, 2015 - Southeast Edition
Challen Stephens

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (AP) Huntsville could soon pass Birmingham to become the largest city in Alabama.

“We believe we will be the biggest city in the state within a decade,” said Dennis Madsen, long-range planner for the city of Huntsville.

Right now, Huntsville is fourth. It’s the smallest of the four main cities in this state. But those cities have evolved in ways that find all four at nearly the same size.

And demographers with Huntsville project the city slipping past Mobile in two years, passing Montgomery in four years and growing larger than Birmingham by 2022.

Birmingham is currently the largest city in Alabama with about 212,000 people. Huntsville is the smallest of the four at about 188,000.

But Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle was cautious about the prediction.

“Bigger is not always better,” said Battle. “No one is in a race to be the biggest city in Alabama. Our challenge is to continue growing and still maintain the high quality of life we have.”

And Birmingham disagrees with the Huntsville projections.

John Colon, director of community development of Birmingham, said the Huntsville planners didn’t appear to take into account the growth Birmingham has seen in recent years.

“This Renaissance is evidenced by the 1,500 new housing units currently under construction as well as those that have already been completed just this year,” wrote Colon.

The Huntsville projections extend patterns of last two decades. That basically means city demographers predict that Huntsville will continue to grow, while the other three cities stay level. It’s a prediction mirrored in county projections by Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama.

The Montgomery Advertiser noted the trend at the release of the 2010 Census, when proclaiming that Montgomery was likely to pass Birmingham as the state’s largest city by 2020. But even then, Montgomery was hearing footsteps:

“Fourth-place Huntsville, which saw its population climb by almost 14 percent in the past 10 years, could be fighting for the honor of being the state’s largest city by the 2020 census,” predicted the Montgomery Advertiser in 2011.

Montgomery now seems unlikely to pass Birmingham. Montgomery leveled off in 2000 and has lost population since 2010.

Mobile more than doubled after World War II, but hasn’t expanded much since 1960. Birmingham peaked around 1960 and has lost about 38 percent, or more than 120,000 residents, since then.

To come to their conclusions, Huntsville planners project 29,000 new Huntsville residents in the city limits by 2025. Huntsville demographer Connie Graham said the city growth is driven by “jobs, baby boomers and millennials.” The predictions show Montgomery and Mobile as largely unchanged and Birmingham losing about 5,000 people over the next ten years.

But that may not happen.

Colon mentions the same interest among millennials in living in an urban center.

“Another key indicator which is directly tied to our population is the fact that last year, for the first time in over 50 years, we experienced a growth in population,” wrote Colon.

Birmingham predicts its city population is about to grow, wrote Colon, adding: “Based on this, we believe the projections below are inaccurate, but we do wish Huntsville well.”

Perhaps the Advertiser summed it up it best in 2011: “Other than bragging rights, what does all this mean?” Being the largest city in the state may be without direct financial benefit. But the claim clearly holds a certain appeal.

In 2011, the Montgomery Advertiser said even without any tangible benefit, “it would be nice....” Mobile meanwhile still bills itself on its Web site as the “second largest city in the state of Alabama.” It’s not. Montgomery passed Mobile at the 2010 Census. But second sounds better than third.

In Huntsville, Mayor Battle sounded uninterested in becoming the state’s largest city. He warned: “Cities that rapidly outgrow their infrastructure can quickly harm their quality of life.”

Of course, there are many ways to rank Alabama’s most populated areas:

By city: 1) Birmingham, 2) Montgomery, 3) Mobile, 4) Huntsville.

This is the list Huntsville is predicted to climb quickly in coming years. This is a straightforward count of the number of residents living within the city limits.

“Everyone wants to be number one,” said Mayor Battle in Huntsville. “I’d rather be number one in the right things such as low crime, easy commute times and a high quality of life. Do it right — not just do it bigger.”

By county: 1) Jefferson, 3) Mobile, 3) Madison, 4) Montgomery.

Jefferson remains the state’s most densely populated county and that is unlikely to change. Madison County is projected to pass Mobile County in the next 15 to 20 years to become the second largest county in Alabama.

That projection comes from the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama.

Jefferson County is projected to grow by just 3 percent by 2040 to reach 670,000 residents. Mobile County is projected to grow by 6 percent and Montgomery County by 9 percent.

But the Center at the University of Alabama also forecasts continued rapid growth in the suburbs outside Birmingham, Mobile and Huntsville. Their projections show Shelby, St. Clair, Baldwin and Limestone each growing by more than half over the coming 25 years.

Lee County, home to Auburn, also is expected to grow by more than half.

By metro: 1) Birmingham, 2) Huntsville, 3) Mobile, 4) Montgomery.

Birmingham’s metro area will remain the largest in Alabama. Birmingham metro spans seven counties to encompass nearly 1.2 million people. No other metro is close in terms of population or land area.

Metro areas are defined by the federal government and include counties with a high percentage of people who commute to the city center for work.

Huntsville passed Mobile in 2010 to become the second largest metro in the state.

Huntsville’s metro area includes Madison and Limestone counties. Decatur on the other side of the river has its own metro area. Metro Mobile is just Mobile County. Fast-growing Baldwin County across the bay also has its own metro designation.

The Montgomery metro spans five counties but has still fewer people. Montgomery metro is projected to pass Mobile metro by 2040.

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