Population growth in much of Utah now tops the nation, thanks to newcomers drawn by its strong economy, according to U.S. Census estimates released Thursday.
But the Uinta Basin — where the energy boom went bust — is suffering one of the country’s worst losses of population.
Major findings in the new data include:
• St. George is now America’s fastest-growing metropolitan area — and Provo-Orem isn’t far behind at No. 8.
• For the second year in a row, Heber ranks No. 1 for growth among the country’s smaller “micropolitan areas,” with populations between 10,000 and 50,000.
• Among the nation’s larger counties (with at least 10,000 residents), three in Utah are among the Top 10 fastest-growing, and they all ring the Wasatch Front: Wasatch at No. 3, Tooele at No. 7 and Morgan at No. 8.
• However, Uintah County saw the No. 8 worst population skid among large counties, losing 2.9 percent of its residents between 2016 and 2017. Seven rural Utah counties lost population last year, and many depend on mineral extraction.
“Growth is uneven across the state,” said Pam Perlich, demographics director at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. “Some of the population of those declining rural counties is probably moving into the urban core that is doing quite well.”
She adds that urban areas are attracting migrants from around the country because “we continue to have one of the strongest economies in the nation.” That, plus high housing prices in the Wasatch Front, is forcing suburbanization to spread farther out into neighboring counties.
The St. George metro area — all of Washington County — grew by 4 percent last year, adding 6,425 people.
Washington County Commissioner Victor Iverson figures it is the nation’s fastest-growing metro area because “it’s a highly desirable place to live with natural beauty, a warm climate and good people.”
Perlich said Medicare data tracked by her institute show that “it’s still clearly a target destination for retirement migrants.” In fact, 86 percent of growth there is from immigration — with many retirees — and only 14 percent is from “natural growth” from more births than deaths.
Perlich said that is opposite from most Utah counties, where births drive far greater percentages of growth.
Iverson said St. George still has plenty of young families and children, “and most want to live here when they grow up.” He adds that Dixie State University “continues to grow” and attracts more students to the area.
“The area still has a rural feel to it, even though it is now urban,” Iverson said. “That’s why a lot of people want to live here.”
Iverson said the quick growth is “a blessing and a curse.”
Among the challenges is a lack of affordable housing — with retirees able to afford higher prices than many young families. It has been a challenge attracting higher-paying jobs, as many now are in lower-paying service industries.
Also, “We are one of the driest counties in Utah, which is the second-driest state in the union,” Iverson said, adding it has tapped almost all easily developable water sources — so it is looking to pipe in water from distant Lake Powell.
Tough geography, and protections for endangered species, has also made transportation tough “because you can’t just put a road anywhere,” Iverson said.
The Heber micropolitan area — all of Wasatch County — grew 5 percent last year, up 1,535 people. That made it both the fastest-growing micropolitan area in the country, and the nation’s third-fastest-growing large county.
“It’s the lifestyle that attracts people, whether it’s the friendly people or the outdoors and great scenery,” said Wasatch County Manager Mike Davis. “We retain the rural feel. But when I moved here 30 years ago, there was one stop light. Now there are a lot.”
He said most people commute to work in Salt Lake or Utah counties, but enjoy living in the mountains away from smoggy inversions.
Perlich said Wasatch County is an example of the urban core in the Wasatch Front spreading outward, which is also happening in Tooele and Morgan counties. She said most of that is driven by people seeking more affordable housing.
In the case of Wasatch County, Davis said most housing there is more expensive than on the Wasatch Front — but cheaper than nearby Park City. But he figures many new residents want bigger or more scenic plots than they can find in the valleys.
Other ‘ring’ counties
Tooele ranked No. 7 among the nation’s large counties for growth at 4.4 percent, up by 2,857 residents. Morgan was No. 8, also up 4.4 percent while adding 500 residents.
Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne said “we’re growing because we have housing that is more affordable,” and Tooele isn’t as far away from Salt Lake County as many people think. “People perceive that it is farther because the Oquirrh Moutain are between us.”
He said he was surprised himself when he moved to Tooele from Sandy. He found that he could get to downtown Salt Lake City just as quickly in rush hour. He said more people are figuring that out, too.
Morgan County Council member Tina Cannon said most of the growth there is in her hometown of Mountain Green, seven minutes up Weber Canyon from the Ogden area.
“The local joke is that we’re not above a lot of things, but we are above the inversion” in “one of the shortest canyons” near the Wasatch Front, she said. Housing is still relatively cheap, the commute to the Wasatch Front is short and the mountain scenery is pretty.
She said development in most of her county is limited by lack of sewer systems, but Mountain Green is an exception. She said Morgan City’s sewer is at capacity, but hopes to expand soon.
She said growth is driving up home prices. Available homes and lots go quickly, and some young natives are finding it hard to find homes they can afford.
Among the nation’s metro areas, Provo-Orem ranked No. 8 for growth, up 2.7 percent, or 16,197 people.
Andrew Jackson, executive director of the Mountainland Association of Governments, a regional planning agency there, said it attracts “people who are starting out and want a piece of land, a little bit of the American Dream. We are able to offer that.”
Most growth is in northern Utah County, where Jackson said “a husband can commute to a job in Salt Lake City and the wife can commute to Provo” with equal travel times.
Jackson said the local economy has diversified, with far more high-tech companies “so people are able to stay here. Also many people in my generation who moved away are returning. So there’s a lot of people retiring from places like California to come to be close to kids and grandkids who are here.”
Perlich added that much of growth there is fueled by “Utah County emerging as an employment center.”
Population loss areas
Uintah County saw its population drop by 2.9 percent last year — eighth worst among the nation’s largest counties — losing 1,044 residents.
Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, who is a banker there, said it is because of the collapse of what had been a boom with oil and natural gas.
“There’s a lot of vacant homes,” he said. “We had 11 percent to 14 percent unemployment for a while.” He added it is “typical of the cycle we see when we are largely dependent on one industry.”
However, those numbers are for 2017. Van Tassell said conditions seem to have improved recently as the area has attracted some new industry, including technology companies and an herbal medicine company.
Population losses were even worse in small Daggett County, neighboring Uintah to the north. It lost 4.8 percent of its population last year, or one of every 20 residents.
Seven of Utah’s 29 counties lost population last year. Others include Piute, -2.9 percent; Duchesne and Emery, -1.4 percent; Beaver, -1.4 percent; and Carbon, -0.4 percent.
“Many of those depend on [mineral] extraction industries,” which are not doing well, Perlich said. She adds that many young people who grow up there leave to find jobs, and figures many are heading to the growing urban areas.
Other Wasatch Front areas
Salt Lake County is still by far the state’s largest with 1,135,649 residents, up 1.3 percent or 14,270 people. Of that growth, 23 percent came from in-migration, and 77 percent came from more births than deaths.
Watch out, Salt Lake County: Utah County actually added more people last year: 15,950, up 2.7 percent. It also topped 600,000 residents for the first time — 606,435. Data show 36 percent of its growth came from in-migration, and 64 percent from births.
And the population of Weber County is 251,769, up 1.8 percent or 4,450 people.
Davis County’s population is 347,637, up 1.8 percent or 6,308 people.