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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

It's hard to believe, but in at least one way, Mecklenburg's population is shrinking

Sometimes you fly past a stray fact, like a deer on the side of the interstate, and it takes a minute to process what you saw.

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It’s taken me a little time to make sense of something our friends at The Charlotte Ledger reported the other day. Here’s the fact: More people are choosing to leave Mecklenburg County than choosing to move here.

Overall the county is still growing because our birth rate is higher than our death rate. But between July 2020 and July 2021, about 2,000 more people decided to move out of Mecklenburg than move in.

That doesn’t feel right if you’re sitting in Charlotte’s perpetual construction traffic, or if you’re trying to buy a house and end up in a bidding war with 50 other buyers. It’s also not intuitive if you look around at all the cranes in the sky and the concrete being poured. Just in the time, it takes you to read this sentence, we’ll have two new breweries.

Charlotte’s not hurting. Yet. But it’s worth thinking about how the last couple of years has changed things for cities.

One of the many ways COVID has upended our world is that it’s changed the way millions of people deal with work. Lots of people looked around at their jobs and decided they wanted something different, which led to what we’re calling the Great Resignation. Many others who kept their jobs and worked remotely found they liked working from home.

One reason cities exist is to be a central place where people can go to work. Our skyscrapers are basically vertical factories. But if you don’t need a desk on the 53rd floor anymore–if you can do the same thing from your kitchen table–a lot of people are going to find that kitchen table more attractive. Especially if it could be anywhere.

So it’s natural that as more people are able to work from home, some of them will leak away from the city toward the suburbs, or small towns or out in the country somewhere.

Ever since I’ve been in Charlotte, people have complained about the traffic and the schools and the cost of living. But those have never been enough to stem our growth. The only thing that has slowed us down, in the 30-some years I’ve been here, was the financial crisis that nearly wrecked not just our big banks but the whole economy.

What’s happening now is moving in slower motion. But it’s useful to remember that a city could, and should, be more than a corporate center. It needs to provide or make opportunities for, culture and joy and a sense of place. It needs to be able to answer the question: Why should people live here?

For most of Charlotte’s existence, the answer has been “This is where the jobs are.” But if more workers having more options becomes a permanent thing, we’d better come up with some other reasons.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.