Regional migration ebbs

CHARLOTTE -- The Charlotte region's march of newcomers appears to be slowing.

Some indicators, including school enrollment, new electrical service hookups and reports from businesses that cater to new residents, point to a migratory slip.

Economists and others say the change, though just a hiccup and no threat to long-term prosperity, illustrates how Charlotte's economy is feeling pressure from a flagging national economy.

It also could ease traffic, pollution and a classroom space crunch, among other growing pains, said Douglas Shoemaker, a research analyst with UNC Charlotte's Center for Applied Geographic Information Science.

"A lot of towns have been overwhelmed by quality of life issues and providing services such as water and sewer," Shoemaker said. "A lull would allow planners to get the upper hand again."

The latest U.S. Census Bureau population data on newcomers isn't available until the fall. But institutions such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Duke Energy have noticed a decline.

CMS officials expected to add 5,200 students this school year, but only about 2,900 new enrollees turned up. It marked the first time in four years that CMS forecasts overestimated enrollment.

Duke says new electric power hookups in the Carolinas fell to 38,391 for 2007 after increasing to a high 40,828 in 2006.

Gentle Giant, a Boston-area-based mover with a Charlotte office, has seen its once-strong flow of New Englanders into the region pull back, said Jon Vogel, regional branch manager. It started about six months ago, he said.

The company also specializes in out-of-state corporate moves. "We've had a lot of really big jobs get canceled. There isn't the drive to invest as much."

Vogel said real estate prices have fallen so far in the Northeast that homeowners can't afford to sell at a loss: "So they're putting off moves." Side business from relocations also is affected -- fewer newcomers move their parents down after them, for example, he said. "All that stuff used to trickle down."

The region has benefited this decade from transplants who spend money, buy houses and work available jobs, said Mark Vitner, senior economist with Wachovia.

About 88,000 newcomers moved to Charlotte in 2006-2007, and about 14,000 moved away, for a net population increase of 74,000. That's up from 80,000 newcomers in 2005-2006, with 30,000 moving away for a net 50,000 increase, according to an annual Observer analysis of census data released each fall.

Federal Reserve economist Matt Martin said he expects this fall's Census data that counts newcomers to confirm a decline. He said he's been hearing a collective buzz since the fall about the slowdown of newcomers.

He said a tightening local job market is adding to the falloff. "There are not as many opportunities at the moment," said Martin, who works at the Federal Reserve branch in Charlotte.

Jobless rates for the Charlotte area and the Carolinas have been higher than the U.S. rate, which was up to 5.5 percent in May from 5 percent in April. The region's jobless rate was 5.1 percent in April. The latest Carolinas unemployment figures are due later this month.

Vitner said he's expecting the newcomer slowdown to extend into next year, sapping tax revenues and local economic sectors that offer services "directly tied to population growth."

Growing region

Population for nine-county Charlotte region.

• 2007: 2,143,946

• 2006: 2,065,520

• 2005: 1,991,060

• 2004: 1,934,195

• 2003: 1,893,429

• 2002: 1,858,327

• 2001: 1,820,030

• 2000: 1,775,860

Note: For this story, The Charlotte Observer defined the region as the retail trade zone of York County as well as the N.C. counties of Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln, Rowan, Union counties.