If it weren’t for increased numbers of Hispanics, multi-ethnic people and Asian Americans, Savannah would have lost population since 2000.
New census figures reveal not only fewer whites, but also slightly fewer blacks, so growth of other groups fueled modest overall population growth here.
Last year’s once-a-decade head count revealed the Hostess City’s population grew to 136,286 — up 3,321 — but lost 1,632 whites and 169 blacks. Meanwhile, its Hispanic population more than doubled to 6,392 and the city added almost 700 Asian Americans and nearly 900 people who claim more than one ethnicity.
“It’s the browning of America,” said Alderman Mary Osborne, noting that Hispanics are the fastest-growing demographic in Georgia and across the country. “We’re getting more diverse and will continue to do so as time goes on.”
At 54.9 percent, African Americans remained the majority here, and at 36.2 percent whites remained the largest minority. Hispanics grew to 4.7 percent while Asian Americans and multi-ethnics rose to nearly 2 percent.
University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel said economics and birth rates help account for the influx of Hispanics and other minorities.
“There has been a proliferation of job opportunities in areas like Savannah and minority women tend to have a higher birth rate,” he said.
But some people became Savannahians because of annexations, said Tom Thomson, executive director of the Chatham County-Savannah Metropolitan Planning Commission.
Thomson said he doesn’t know how many people live in areas annexed since 2000. But, asked whether it might be enough to account for all of the population growth, he replied, “It might be in the ballpark.”
Mayor Otis Johnson, who is black, said it didn’t matter much to him that some African Americans may have left town.
“I don’t care where the people came from as long as the city continued to grow,” he said.
But in Chatham County overall, most newcomers have been on the west side, where there’s been room to grow. Pooler is the poster child; its population nearly tripled to 19,140.
“Nobody should be surprised,” said Robert Eisinger, a political science professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design. “We’ve seen earlier census estimates, and you see it when you drive out that way. You see the new subdivisions and shopping centers.”
More than 62 percent of Pooler’s people are white.
But its black population jumped more than nine-fold to 25 percent. And Pooler’s Hispanic population — near 7 percent — is almost 15 times what it was in 2000. But about half of the additional people are white.
“It’s the American dream,” Eisinger said, noting that home prices in much of Pooler are relatively affordable. “People want a big yard and they move.”
Bachtel sees at least two other forces at work — “white flight” and “bright flight.” The first, Bachtel said, represents a seepage of whites from Savannah to places such as Pooler, which they perceive as having lower crime and better schools. “Bright flight,” he said, represents the exodus of educated upscale people of all races — and for the same reasons.
“It’s really more socio-economic than racial,” he said.
Johnson says he knows many blacks who have moved to Pooler.
“People are going to wake up and say, ‘Oh, my goodness,’” he said. “I’m just going to smile.”
County more diverse
The new census figures confirmed earlier estimates showing that Chatham County continues to become more diverse.
A bare majority — 50.4 percent — of its 265,128 people remain white, compared to 54.1 percent in 2000.
Blacks now comprise 40.7 percent of the population, up slightly from 10 years before, and Hispanics, 5.4 percent, almost three times as many as in 2000.
Chatham’s population grew 14.3 percent since then, a little faster than census estimates projected. That’s less than the 18.3 statewide growth rate over the last decade, but easily tops Savannah’s 2.5 percent.
The MPC’s Thomson wasn’t surprised, saying the higher numbers for Chatham are close to his agency’s projections.
In neighboring Effingham and Bryan counties, head counts soared by 39 percent and 29 percent, respectively — close to expectations based on census estimates.
Each remains overwhelmingly white, but the black and Hispanic populations there grew faster than the white ones.
Bachtel said forces seen in Chatham, such as job prospects, birth rates, white flight and bright flight, were active in Effingham and Bryan.
Johnson acknowledged that those counties and Pooler grew faster than his city.
“But the basis for that growth is still here,” he said. “Many of the people who move to other areas still work here. They wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for Savannah.
“We have to talk about Savannah as the heart of a region. As Savannah goes, so goes the region.”