• Census estimates show small towns continue to shrink

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    ATLANTA (AP) - More than a third of small towns in Georgia lost population in the last year alone, highlighting the challenges of reviving rural areas.

    New census estimates show that Camilla fell below 5,000 residents. Sparks fell below 2,000, Fort Gaines dropped below 1,000 and Milan fell to 661 residents for a loss of 7% of its population, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. All four towns are in South Georgia.

    Georgia's smallest town, Edge Hill, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) west of Augusta, got even smaller as well. It lost one of its 24 residents last year, according to Census Bureau estimates.

    "Many of the young people in these communities graduate from high school and don't come back. They go to college, whatever, they don't come back," said David Bridges, president of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton and head of its Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation.

    Meanwhile, Georgia's cities are growing, having no problem drawing people from small towns and other cities.

    Atlanta grew more than 1% in the past year and is now nearing the half-million-resident mark. The city now boasts 498,044 residents and will cross 500,000 next year if current growth rates continue.

    The trend of people moving from rural to urban areas is hardly a new one - it's been going on worldwide for more than a century. But continued population losses have raised questions about whether rural areas can do anything to reverse the tide.

    More than half of the small towns in Georgia - those with populations under 10,000 - have lost population since 2010. Meanwhile, only 1 in 6 towns with populations of 10,000 or above have lost residents, according to an analysis by the Journal-Constitution.

    Rural residents can face a myriad of challenges including access to good jobs, transportation and health care. Manufacturing jobs have dried up in many places, while modernization and new technology means fewer people are needed for farming. And many people are deciding to have smaller families than was typical a century ago.

    "The older generation is dying, the younger generation is moving away, and because there are perceived to be fewer business opportunities, financial opportunities, et cetera, it's very challenging to get inbound population," Bridges said.

    Demographers expect the shift from rural to urban to continue. But there are some bright spots in rural America still.

    Jackson County near Athens was recently named one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation by the Census Bureau. Amazon opened a large fulfillment center there a couple of years ago. Hoschton, in Jackson County, has grown by more than a third since 2010, nearing 2,000 residents.

    And Young Harris, near the Georgia-North Carolina border, has grown by more than 80% since 2010.

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    Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, http://www.ajc.com

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