At least until this week.
The Governor's Office of Planning and Budget has released its long-range growth projections for the state, and the population forecast it makes for Washington County goes well past any previous calculations. In fact, based upon these new estimates, the St. George area of today will be unrecognizable by 2050 -- when more than 607,000 people are expected to call it home.
That's up from the current Washington County population estimate of just over 125,000, at about 4 percent growth per year. St. George Mayor Daniel McArthur says that sounds about right to him -- for a change.
"If you look at history, they've underestimated us just about every year. It just hasn't matched up with what we've been seeing on the ground," McArthur said Wednesday. "These figures line up more with what we've been saying. The state's always been behind the curve. Now it might actually be a little ahead."
Other growth hot spots over the next four decades include Utah, Summit, Wasatch, Tooele, Iron, Cache and Morgan counties, where population increases are forecast to exceed 2 percent annually. Salt Lake, Davis and Weber counties, approaching residential buildout, are expected to grow at much more modest rates (just over 1 percent per year).
At the same time, the new state projections point to what could be a looming demographic crisis -- a jump in the school-age population combined with a spike in retirees. The former has long been anticipated. The latter, while not a new discovery, is shaping up to to be far larger than originally thought.
"The state's ability to handle this growth is going to be a real challenge because you're basically talking about two dependent populations," said Robert Spendlove, manager of demographic and economic analysis in the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget.
Utah's school-age population will grow by 155,000, or about 2.5 percent annually, between now and 2015, Spendlove continued. But beginning in 2012, the retirement population will begin expanding at about 4.5 percent a year over the ensuing decade. That spells state investment for education and programs like Medicaid at levels that are virtually unimaginable today.
Bottom line: "We're going to have more nonworking-age people per working-age person," said Pamela Perlich, a senior economist with the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research. "That's part of a national trend. But people thought we'd missed the [retiree] spike in Utah. Not only have we not missed it, we're going to have a whole bunch of kids to go with it."
The new state population projections do confirm that the migration to what are now called the "exurbs" -- areas beyond the traditional suburbs -- will continue. Summit, Wasatch and Tooele counties -- all within about an hour's commute of Salt Lake City -- experienced population booms in the 1990s because of this trend. Morgan County, located up the canyon from Ogden with Interstate 84 linking the two, appears to be next.
Now home to just over 7,000 residents, the Morgan area is projected to grow to 25,000 by 2030 and 47,000 by 2050. That's a growth rate of nearly 4 percent annually.
"Part of it is because of build-out in Weber and Davis counties, and part of it is because of the higher real estate prices in Summit County," said Spendlove. "But it's really just part of that continuing [exurban] trend."
With plenty of room to grow, Cache County is expected to be home to nearly 185,000 people by 2030, and 267,000 by 2050. And with a projected 2.3 percent annual growth rate, Utah County is expected to reach 800,000 residents in 25 years and 1.1 million by 2050.
Driving much of this growth will continue to be natural increases, accounting for over two-thirds of the state's projected population increase.
"The natural increases will remain stable," Spendlove said. "Between 1950 and 2005, 79 percent of the state's growth has been because of natural increase, and it looks to be roughly the same going forward. Utah continues to be pretty unique in that regard."