Ever so slightly, Drew County is growing
Of the seven counties which most people consider “Southeast Arkansas,” only Drew County showed an increase in population in the latest estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s not surprising at all, both Drew County Judge Robert Akin and Interim Monticello Mayor David Anderson agreed.
Comparing the 2010 census with July, 2016 predictions, Drew County has grown by 142 people, a 0.8 percent increase, according to the most recent offi cial fi gures available, released late last month. In 2010, the census showed Drew County with a population of 18,509. While the next six years saw up-and-down numbers, the Census Bureau reported a population estimate of 18,651 by July, 2016.
Ashley County, on the other hand, showed the biggest decline. From a population of 21,853 in 2010, the July, 2016 census predicted a population of 20,492 in Drew County’s next-door neighbor to the south. That represents a decrease of 1,361 people, or 6.2 percent.
Desha County, to Drew County’s east, was predicted to have lost more than 1,000 residents as well. The county’s 2010 census showed 13,008 people living in Desha County; July, 2016 estimates showed only 11,876.
The same held true for Lincoln, Cleveland, Bradley and Chicot counties.
Lincoln County was the closest to Drew County in Southeast Arkansas, losing only 442 people from a 2010 census of 14,134 to a July, 2016 estimate of 13,705. Cleveland County’s numbers were 8,689 on the 2010 census; 8,241 in the July, 2016 estimate.
According to the Census Bureau, 11,508 people lived in Bradley County in 2010, as compared with just 10,996 by July, 2016. Chicot County’s 2010 census showed 11,800 county residents; by July, 2016, only 10,945 people were estimated to be living in that area.
“We’re holding our own,” Akin said. “We’re not building numbers like I’d like to see yet but if we’re able to get a couple more of these 35- or 40-employee industries, it would help. You can’t live in a box anymore. You have to think regionalism.
“Think of where we’re getting our money. A lot of it is coming from people who work outside the county but live here. And they want to live here. That’s the reason our numbers are up.”
Both elected officials pointed to the same three things as the reason Drew County has not followed suit with the rest of Southeast Arkansas.
The University of Arkansas at Monticello, good healthcare and not one but two excellent school districts are the primary reasons for the county “holding our own” in the census estimates, Akin and Anderson concurred.
“If you’ll look around, we’ve got tons of multi-family housing going up,” Anderson noted. “It’s being built right now and these people aren’t going to spend millions of dollars if they didn’t think our town was growing. We’ve got some areas of Monticello where new houses are being built—and the builders are selling them as fast as they can build them.
“If you go out to the hospital, we’ve got a multi-million dollar expansion project going on out there. What separates Drew County and Monticello from all these other counties is UAM and good healthcare. Plus, we have two very good school systems with Drew Central and Monticello. Not only do parents have a choice of where they want to send their kids but good teachers have choices as to where they want to work.”
Akin called Drew County a “vacuum”—in the best way possible.
“The university, our healthcare and our schools have created a vacuum to suck people from the Delta,” he explained. “We, as a community, are holding our own because of those things. If it wasn’t for UAM, we’d look like those other counties.
“At the turn of the 20th century, there were over 20,500 people that lived in Drew County (actually, the 1910 population was 21,960). We went down to about 15,000 (by 1960 the county had a population of only 15,213) then we started picking back up. We’re service-minded now. A lot of people come here from outside the county. People from Warren, from Star City, from Hamburg feel safe in coming here.
“It’s great we have Domino’s and Dairy Queen opening up here but we don’t have enough places like that. The days of Burlington Industries aren’t coming back; we’re a service-oriented county now and we’re going not going to get big factories. We’re going to get those 35-, 40- and maybe 60-employee industries. That should make our numbers continue to go up.”
As Interim Mayor of the largest city in the county by far, Anderson was of the same opinion. Almost half the projected 18,509 Drew Central residents live in Monticello.
“It’s good news,” Anderson said of the latest U.S. Census Bureau fi gures. “Yes, we’re growing and we’ll continue to grow. Why not live here in Monticello? We’ve got a very low crime rate. You’re going to have the petty stuff but major crime? Every time you turn on the television, you’re seeing a killing in Pine Bluff or a killing in Little Rock.
“We have a very low crime rate, we’ve got an excellent police department, our fi re department is top-notch and we are being very progressive and growing. Here you have UAM if you want the culture of a college town, the SEARK Concert Association if you’re interested in that and we’ve got an outstanding library.”
Akin pointed out another upcoming project which could make Drew County grow even faster. A regional jail that would serve Drew, Bradley, Cleveland and Lincoln counties and that has been discussed for some time by the Southeast Arkansas Intermodal Authority, the Drew County judge noted, is almost a reality.
“We’re so close our skin is touching on this jail,” Akin said of the projected 150-200-bed facility that would house both county and federal prisoners and be built in Drew County. “We’ve got to get our stuff together; in fact, I’m getting it together right now. The regional jail is done—we can do that. They’ve made provision for us to do it. ADC’s (Arkansas Department of Corrections) on board with us. That’s going to be one of our biggest employers. I’m thinking we’re going to be closer to 20,000; as a matter of fact, I think (the July, 2016) projection is low.”
Long touted as the “hub of Southeast Arkansas,” both Anderson and Akin pointed out the many benefi ts of residency in Monticello— lower gasoline prices, competitive utility rates, the ability to buy items not available in other area towns and just the enjoyment of watching movies, to name a few.
“Where else are you going to go to a movie?” Akin asked. “I told somebody if that movie theater were to ever close down—not that I’d ever want it to—I’d want the county to buy it, sell the tickets at cost, not make any money, put our young people to work and get people to come here and watch a movie, buy dinner, buy a Coke, go to Wal-Mart, go to Atwoods and spend their money here.
“In the city of Monticello, we’re not dying, we’re gathering in people. The farmers in the Delta want their kids in our school districts, so they’re putting a trailer on the farm and living in it during the week but they’re living here.”
Monticello’s Interim Mayor said he couldn’t agree more— about the city and county.
“Look around and see what gas prices are in other towns versus Monticello,” Anderson said. “It’s cheaper to live here than in other towns and cities. Our water rates are very low and competitive to other towns. There’s no reason in the world why anybody wouldn’t want to live here.”