Census: Wake County is now North Carolina’s largest county

Wake County

RALEIGH — Wake County is now North Carolina’s largest county, the U.S. Census Bureau said on Thursday as its annual population estimates show the county containing Raleigh surpassing Mecklenburg County.

The census said Wake County had an estimated 1,111,761 people as of July 1, with Mecklenburg close behind at 1,110,356. The July 2018 estimates by the census had Mecklenburg ahead of Wake by roughly 2,500 people.

Mecklenburg, dominated by Charlotte and its banking, airline and other corporate hubs, had been comfortably ahead of Wake County for generations. Wake had last been North Carolina’s population leader during the 1890 census, according to data provided by the state demographer.

But Wake, with the continued expansion of the technology sector associated with Research Triangle Park, has been closing the gap during the 21st century. Raleigh and Charlotte historically have been competitors for the state’s political power and economic engines.

While both counties have grown by 20% over the past decade, the in-migration of out-of-state residents to Wake County has been more robust, said Rebecca Tippett, director of Carolina Demography, a research consulting group affiliated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“There are a lot of employers in the Triangle, and there are major universities there,” said Tippett, adding that the high-quality health care in the region is also attracting older adults who may have children or grandchildren in the area.

The rest of the top 10 most-populated counties remained unchanged compared to the year before. Guilford County is third at 537,174, followed by Forsyth County (382,295) and Cumberland County (335,509). Next in order are Durham, Buncombe, Union, New Hanover and Gaston counties. Charlotte remains the state’s largest city.

The census report also said the Raleigh-Cary metropolitan area, comprised of Wake, Franklin and Johnston counties, was the 10th fastest-growing region from 2010 to 2019, increasing 23% to almost 1.4 million people.

Brunswick County had the most year-over-year growth among North Carolina’s 100 counties, the census said, its population increasing over 4% to nearly 143,000 people.

The census estimates show the population in 31 counties decreasing over the year. The highest percentage drop happened in Tyrrell County, which is also the smallest in population by raw figures. There are now 4,016 people living in Tyrrell, a loss of over 2% compared to July 2018.

Tippett said the number of counties with decreasing net populations is lower compared to several years ago, when young people were leaving at higher rates.

North Carolina’s statewide population grew by 1% for the year ending July 1, reaching an estimated 10,488,084 people, ranking ninth among the states.

More specific totals will originate from the decennial census now underway nationwide.