We’re just getting started: A look ahead at the next 50 years in East Cooper

  • Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau and Town of Mount Pleasant Planning Dept.

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When you tell the story of East Cooper, you tell a story of growth. And for the Moultrie News, telling the story of East Cooper has been the top priority since day one.

Recently, the U.S. Census named Mount Pleasant as the ninth-fastest-growing large city in America, with an estimated population of almost 75,000. According to the census estimate, the town grew at a rate of 4.1 percent over the course of a year leading up to July 2013. While the Town of Mount Pleasant Department of Planning and Development has a smaller figure, tracking 2013 growth at 3.84 percent based on number of dwelling units, the town is still facing an incredible population shift. For example, if annual growth were to drop down to its lowest Recession-era rate of 1.6 percent, the town would be looking at a population of almost 166,000, roughly the size of another seaside community, Cape Coral, Florida. On the other hand, if you take the average annual growth rate since 2006, which is slightly less than 3 percent, this area would reach a population of about 300,000 in 50 years. This would make Mount Pleasant the size of St. Paul, Minnesota or Cincinnati, Ohio. While growth would slow down way before the area reaches that size, it’s something to consider. These two projections illustrate the two conflicting ideas that citizens seem have of what this area should be. As seen with the proposal of building a parking garage/office space on Shem Creek, many citizens are passionate about maintaining the look and character of this coastal community, while some see this expansion as progress. And while these are rough projections and no one can be sure exactly what the future holds for East Cooper, one thing is certain: change.

When the Moultrie News started in 1964, Mount Pleasant consisted of fewer than 6,000 residents, which is less than the current combined populations of Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms. When the first issue of the Moultrie News hit stands in May of that year, the median price of a new home in the United States was $19,300 or less than half the current average annual income of a Mount Pleasant resident. At this point, the entire population of Mount Pleasant could have just barely filled the seats at Blackbaud Stadium. Keep in mind that the area of Mount Pleasant is about five times the size of Sullivan’s Island and the Isle of Palms put together; as you can imagine, residents had plenty of room to stretch out. So, the question is how did an area with fewer than 6,000 permanent residents become the ninth-fastest-growing city in America?

The swelling of East Cooper began in the ‘70s. Mount Pleasant more than quadrupled in population between 1970 and 1990. By the time the much-feared year 2000 arrived, Mount Pleasant had reached 47,609 citizens, which may seem like a lot of people but is only slightly more than the average number of people who visit Walt Disney World each day. This may seem like a random statistic until you realize that the incorporated land area of Mount Pleasant is only about 3-square-miles larger than “the happiest place on Earth,” at least until Mickey decides to add another parking lot.

This brings us to the present. Collectively, East Cooper boasts more than 90,000 residents and is growing fast. Mount Pleasant alone gained almost 3,000 residents last year. This would have accounted for half of the entire town’s population back when the Moultrie News began. What does this growth mean for East Cooper and what challenged will it face in the future?

The two primary concerns for the future laid out by the Town of Mount Pleasant Master Plan are: ensuring that the area’s growing elderly population is properly cared for and attracting more young, working-age adults to the area.

In the future, East Cooper will start to show a little gray. The Baby Boomers began entering retirement age in 2011 and around that time 12.2 percent of the area’s population were ages 65 and older. Town planners estimate that as more and more Baby Boomers enter retirement age, the 65-and-up population will triple over the next 15 to 20 years. According to the planning department’s projections, the town is expecting about 46,000 dwelling units by 2040, which places their population estimate at more than 100,000 residents in Mount Pleasant alone. The area has already noticed an upward shift in 911 calls associated with the elderly and has had to adapt to the increased demand. How will the area support this growing number of retirees? That’s where the importance of attracting young professionals comes in.

In order to keep the economy going strong, the area will need a steady influx of young, working-age professionals to fill the spots left by the Baby Boomers entering retirement. To do this, East Cooper is making efforts to become more of a draw for young adults as well as hold on to the ones it already has. While the area has a healthy number of educated professionals, with 23.5 percent of the population possessing a graduate or professional degree compared the national rate of just 10.3 percent, about 75 percent of high school grads leave the district within three years of getting their diplomas. Also, about half of Mount Pleasant’s residents are employed in management and professional fields, but that same percentage also commutes to Charleston for work. To make matters worse, according to the town’s Long Range Transportation Plan, one-third of the regionally significant roadways will be congested by 2030. Stats such as these go a long way in attracting professionals to the area. No one likes traffic.

Fortunately, efforts are being made to combat these problems. To address this issue, the town’s Master Plan recommends the addition of more management and professional job centers throughout the peninsula, nearer to areas set for major growth such as Carolina Park, as well as an increased focus on multi-modal transportation. According to Tom Bradford, director of Charleston Moves, his organization has spent more time over the past 10 years working in Mount Pleasant than in the city of Charleston. Expect these changes and the continued development of “Mount Pleasant’s downtown,” Coleman Boulevard, to keep drawing young professionals to the area for years to come.

These are just a few ideas of what the future could look like for East Cooper. While stats and figures can go a long way, no one can really say how the next 50 years will turn out. But ultimately what makes a town isn’t the figures and statistics used to represent it; what makes a town are the people those numbers represent. No matter how large or small a community becomes, the most important thing is that you can always call it home.

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