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Wasatch County boomed to become the nation’s third fastest-growing county during the past decade, according to Census Bureau estimates released Thursday. St. George was the country’s fifth fastest growing metro area, and Provo-Orem was not far behind at No. 9.

But complications from the coronavirus may end such lofty rankings in the future — including Utah’s No. 1 rank for growth the past decade, revealed in data released earlier — although it’s too early to tell for sure, said Pam Perlich, senior demographer at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

“The enumeration for the 2020 census is under way right now,” she notes. With students being sent home early from large universities here, “we’re hopeful that we’ll still be able to count those students in their usual college residences — or that will very negatively impact the counts in Provo, Orem and Salt Lake City.”

Also, the Missionary Training Center in Provo for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has closed temporarily — which could dent that city’s count — and many missionaries are returning early or temporarily around the state in the middle of the enumeration. “How will they be accounted for? It’s an interesting question,” Perlich said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Hundreds of people gather to welcome missionaries returning home from the Philippines at the Salt Lake City International Airport on Sunday. Leaders criticized people for failing keeping their distance from one another to prevent more spread of the coronavirus.

In the longer term, the coronavirus could slow Utah’s growth in other ways.

“If this thing should become protracted, we could probably expect migration to slow down; retirement migration to slow down because of a decline in the value of stocks and other assets; probably a little decline in births with the economic uncertainty; and maybe an increase in deaths. But it’s way, way too early for us to know for sure,” Perlich said.

Meanwhile, growth has boomed in most of Utah — although a few rural areas saw declines, according to data on counties and metro areas released Thursday. It was the final population estimate for the decade between 2010 and 2019.

Wasatch County, the home of Heber City, was No. 3 in growth among all counties in the nation as its population grew by 44.9% between 2010 and 2019 — from 23,525 to 34,091.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Golfer walk in Wasatch Mountain State Park in Heber City on May 17, 2017. Wasatch County is one of America's fastest growing.

Perlich said that results from “the Wasatch Front urban center spreading both west and east,” and many people moving to Wasatch County but commuting to Utah and Salt Lake counties.

“The cost of living is more affordable. The farther out you get, the more house and land you can get for your money — and it has been available in Wasatch County,” she said.

St. George ranked No. 5 in growth among all metro areas nationally as its population grew by 28.6% from 138,115 to 177,556 in the past decade.

“It’s not just second homes. It’s not just vacation homes or retirees — although it’s part of it,” Perlich says about St. George, which has traditionally been a magnet for retirees. “We’re seeing in-migration now of family-type populations, people who are able to get jobs there and establish their family…. And the quality of life and climate there — except in August — is pretty amazing.”

(Photo courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The iconic, white-plastered St. George Temple rises in southwestern Utah city of St. George.

Provo-Orem ranked No. 9 among the nation’s metro areas with 23% growth, up from 526,885 residents to 648,252 in the decade.

Orem and Utah County in general are booming “because the epicenter of both residential and commercial growth in the state pushes farther and farther south” from southern Salt Lake County into Utah County, Perlich said. Increasing numbers of people who work in Salt Lake County now commute from Utah County where they find cheaper housing.

Also, the high-tech Silicon Slopes in Lehi is creating more jobs and attracting more workers to live nearby. And Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University are large — and UVU especially is growing and creating more jobs, Perlich said.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In fact during 2019, Utah County had more growth than any other county in the state — continuing a recent trend where it has attracted more people even than Salt Lake County. Utah County grew by 2.4% or 14,175 people last year, compared to 1% growth or 11,745 people in Salt Lake County. The two counties combined had half of the state’s overall growth.

“That’s what you would expect,” Perlich said. “They have the proximity to work, universities and health facilities. They are the core urban areas.”

Salt Lake County is still the state’s largest with a population of 1.16 million. It is followed by Utah County with 636,235; Davis County with 355,481; and Weber County with 260,213.

Five counties in Utah had greater than 3% growth during 2019: Iron (4.1%), Washington (3.5%), Juab (3.3%), Tooele (3.2%) and Wasatch (3.1%).

But three rural counties in Utah actually saw their populations drop during that year: tiny Daggett (-2.5% or 24 people), San Juan (-0.3% or 50 people) and Duchesne (down 5 people).

“Their employment bases are not growing and people are having to leave for employment opportunities elsewhere,” Perlich said.