America's midsize, 'inner Sun Belt' cities grow

One example is Murfreesboro, Tenn., which grew 51 percent in the '90s and has surged 26 percent since then.

It's not dinner time yet, and it's past lunch hour, but the Slick Pig BBQ on the outskirts of this small Southern city is hopping with customers.

And anyone who's not buying a pork sandwich is out driving down the main commercial street that arcs through Murfreesboro.

Once a sleepy Tennessee town with a Civil War past, it's now a booming mini-metropolis poised for continued growth. Population here grew 51 percent in the 1990s and has surged another 26 percent since then.

This small city near Nashville, in the center of the state, typifies a broader pattern nationwide. Everyone knows about the rapid rise of Sun Belt cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. But a sizeable share of the nation's population growth is also happening in smaller cities that might escape notice unless one stops to look.

Often these cities, too, are in the Sun Belt – and the fastest growing ones now are overwhelmingly not on the gold coasts but in affordable inland areas. A recently released list of the fastest growing US cities, as tracked by the Census Bureau, makes the point.

"All but one or two [of the top 10] were in the South or in the West … the 'inner Sun Belt,'" says demographer Kenneth Johnson of Loyola University in Chicago. And almost all, he says, are "on the outer edges of a bigger city."

The rise of this inner Sun Belt is driven by affordable and available land – and the jobs that are gravitating to it. Here in Rutherford County, Tenn., within an easy drive of Nashville, home prices have avoided both boom and bust.

In fact, across much of the South, the steady tandem growth of housing and paychecks has helped many communities escape the housing slump that has hit much of the nation over the past year.

In Murfreesboro, it seems, everyone has a job, a house, and a car, and they are driving down Memorial Boulevard to get to Lowe's or the Hobby Lobby. Managing all this growth is a challenge, but many residents say so far, so good.

"It's grown nicely," in a way that's good for business, says Sara Foy, as she serves up sandwiches at the Slick Pig. "We're progressively getting busier."

Ms. Foy has worked at the small restaurant, with a smokehouse out back, for four years. She moved here with her parents from Vermont about a decade ago, part of the ongoing migration of families and working-age people to the Sun Belt.

The snowdrifts of Vermont were a motivating factor, Foy says. But the dominant force for many migrants to places like Murfreesboro is the chance to live a suburban lifestyle without a long commute.

"It has to do with affordability. It has to do with freshness. It has to do with a mix of jobs and amenities," says William Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "The more affordable regions of the country are growing faster."

Often, affordability corresponds with smaller size. Murfreesboro has just 80,000 residents.

Mr. Frey, looking at cities with more than 100,000 residents, finds that smaller ones – those with less than 250,000 people – are clearly the fastest growing. Their populations on average have risen 5.7 percent in the past six years. Cities in the next tier, with populations at 250,000 to 500,000, have averaged 4.9 percent growth, while the nation's largest cities have grown more slowly – 3.5 percent.

Like Murfreesboro, other communities of the interior South rank among the nation's fastest growing. These include Denton, Texas, and the town of Cary, N.C. In many cases, these growing cities overlap with the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties. McKinney, Texas, (the No. 2 city), is in Collin County (the No. 14 county). North Las Vegas (No. 1) is in Clark County (63rd in the county ranking). All these places have populations below 200,000.

By whatever name – some call them "boomburbs," exurbs, or new metropolises – these locuses of growth often have one thing in common: They're within visiting distance of a much larger city but far enough away to feel a bit removed.

"Some of the ambiguity of these terms is about the ambiguity of the situation," says Mr. Johnson.

Often, these place are lumped together statistically in a larger metro region, which can mask important demographic shifts.

Murfreesboro, for example, counts as part of the larger Nashville MSA (metropolitan statistical area), which has seen its population rise just 11 percent since 2000.

Nashville is still the big city, the place that defines this region with its country music heritage. But places like Murfreesboro, Smyrna, and La Vergne – all in Rutherford County – are where the growth is really happening.

Manufacturing jobs have flowed in, with Nissan's auto plant in Smyrna leading the way. But so have insurance and healthcare jobs. It's also a trucking hub, says David Penn, an economist at Middle Tennessee State University here. The area is within a day's drive of half the nation's population, making it a desirable location for warehousing and distribution.

The rapid growth brings the challenge of how to manage it.

"The traffic stinks," says Margaret Bogle, laughing as she looks out the window at potential customers driving by her quilt shop. "Memorial Boulevard is so busy that it's hard for them to see [the store]."

But with growth has come new job opportunities for young people and expansion of the university.

"At night you can't find a parking place," says Matt Murfree III, an attorney whose surname hails from the same Revolutionary War hero for whom the city is named. "It's like the gold rush here. The growth is phenomenal."

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