Ballarat's population has grown almost the equivalent of a town the size of Warrnambool since the century began, new figures show.
However, the number of people living in the centre of the city has gone down in the past year.
Data released on Tuesday by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), suggests an estimated 111,648 people now live in the local government area - a jump of 29,028 residents since 2001.
The ABS data, which is current as of June 30 last year, only reflects population estimates in the early stages of the pandemic - too early to back up in detail predictions of a surge away from the big cities into the regions.
Predictably, growth is soaring in west Ballarat, but the CBD population has declined year on year, with 124 fewer residents in the official data compared to the end of 2018/19.
The population for the Ballarat statistical area, which includes parts of Newington, Lake Wendouree and Lake Gardens - is now lower than it was in 2004.
The growth figures are likely to sharpen focus on whether infrastructure, including schools, roads and health services, is keeping pace with the city's expansion.
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One Delacombe community leader said new residents should be welcomed but raised concerns about accessibility, both for transport and social connections.
Last month, the chief executive of the City of Ballarat Evan King said the population was growing faster than expected, while the mayor Cr Daniel Moloney said accurate data would be key to ensuring infrastructure was not left behind.
The fastest growing areas are Alfredton and Delacombe by some margin, where a major boom in population has long been expected and planned for. Remarkably, the population in the Alfredton statistical area has almost tripled since 2001.
There were an estimated 5,756 residents there in 2001 according to the ABS, a number which has now ballooned to 15,037.
There has been a huge surge in Delacombe too, more than doubling from 4,154 to 9,238 in the same timeframe. It was the fastest growing area of the city in the 2019/20 financial year .
Both areas are still expanding exponentially - last month, The Courier reported that of 977 new homes approved so far this financial year, 706 were in the Delacombe and Alfredton area, compared to 55 new residences in the central Ballarat area.
If everyone is using an out-of-date growth plan, it makes it hard for us to advocate for investmentCity of Ballarat CEO Evan King
That reflects a broader trend for growth on the fringes and a stagnant population in the centre. In fact, statistics in recent years suggest the population has declined in the centre of the city - with 381 fewer estimated residents in the CBD now compared to the estimated population peak of 12,480 in 2008.
In the past year, there were an estimated 1,857 new residents in the Ballarat local government area, a 1.7 per cent rise. Of those 412 were "natural increase" - ie births; 1,038 were attributed to international migration, and 407 due to overseas migration.
Major Craig Farrell, who heads the Delacombe branch of the Salvation Army, said he believed growth could be positive for the city.
"Growth is just so visible, it's in your face every time you go to the shopping centre," he said. "I am hopeful existing residents would value and welcome new neighbours."
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However, he queried if services were accessible enough - making the point that many remain based in the centre of the city - and whether enough is happening to build a deep sense of community.
"I wonder what sort of targeted programs are in place to get more community connections in the area," he said. "Traffic is a bit behind the eight-ball, and I think we need to promote our community more."
In the Ballarat Strategy published in 2015, the city's population was projected to rise to 160,000 by 2040.
In an interview last month, the new CEO of the City of Ballarat Evan King said population growth was tracking ahead of the predictions.
"We have a 20-year growth projection and six years in we're over 50 per cent of that growth already," he said. "If everyone is using an out-of-date growth plan, it makes it hard for us to advocate for investment.
"If we start to grow without the front-ended investment then you have got areas that won't have the right infrastructure and facilities: education and roads and health and all those sort of services that need to come with that growth in the end."
Cr Moloney agreed, saying there was broad agreement among council, health and education executives that the up-to-date and accurate population projections were key.
"Things have changed that much in the last couple of years, there's a desperate need to update that data and the projections so that we're all on the same page, so all the state government departments can react in the most appropriate way," he said.
"If we don't get consistent data across all of these agencies, we will be playing catch-up.
He said many people would already have seen more cars on the roads, but that growth would bring more job opportunities.
"I hope people can see that full picture, not just [think] 'I am stuck in traffic'."
Planning is now underway for the city's next growth areas, with the north of the city around Mount Rowan earmarked as the most likely urban growth zone.
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