Inside the census numbers

Published 9:32 am Friday, February 11, 2011

Newly released census figures for Western Tidewater contain few surprises.

• Isle of Wight County is bustling. Population growth of 18.6 percent between 2000 and 2010 clearly establishes Isle of Wight as the region’s residential hot spot.

• Southampton County, up 6.2 percent in a decade, is growing — but not at the rapid pace that demographers were predicting just five years ago.

• Franklin, at 2.8 percent, is stagnant.

The challenge for Franklin — and, to a lesser extent, Southampton — will be finding a recipe for a successful economy that does not include residential growth as an ingredient.

In the manufacturing and agricultural economies of old, residential growth was not essential to a vibrant local economy. Manufacturing and farm jobs tended to be stable and were not dependent on or even much influenced by the local marketplace.

As our community has learned so painfully in the past couple of years, manufacturing jobs are no longer stable. For reasons beyond the control of community leaders, manufacturing is unlikely to remain the backbone of rural economies like Western Tidewater’s.

The emerging economic model, which is retail-, service- and technology-based, depends on increasing the number of people who consume those goods and services.

For generations, rural communities like ours had the choice of staying just as they were. Change was optional, growth undesirable. The new reality is that communities who don’t grow will not be able to maintain enough jobs even for their existing residents.

Franklin and Southampton have a good role model in neighboring Isle of Wight.

Isle of Wight, even as it grows, has maintained its rural character and small-town charm by designating certain areas — especially in the northern part of the county — as residential growth corridors and leaving other areas unchanged. That’s not to say that Isle of Wight has been without a few growing pains, but on balance, the community has managed its growth splendidly.

The same can happen in Franklin and Southampton — and indeed must if they want to prosper in the decades ahead.