St. George • Jeremy Spencer left Yuma, Ariz., for St. George to open up a fitness gym partly because of the projected economic growth and changing demographics of the city of 95,000 people. Data trends, he says, indicate a growing fitness market for Washington County that is becoming younger and wealthier.
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the St. George metro area had the most growth by percentage of any metro area in the country between July 2020 and July 2021. Washington County grew by 5.1% or by nearly 9,302 residents.
“A lot of that growth was coming from people moving into the county,” observed Mallory Bateman, director of demographic research and state data coordinator at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
Bateman added that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is another factor, as more people begin buying homes while working remotely and out of the typical office setting.
The housing market is growing and becoming expensive, too. Homes in Washington County have sold at a median sales price of $559,000 in 2021, according to the Utah Association of Realtors, above both Salt Lake County ($516,000) and Utah County ($519,455).
“St. George has multiple stakeholders in the housing market. It’s got its local growth, full-time residents. It has second homeowners and then has the tourism industry that is the Airbnbs of the world,” added Dejan Eskic, senior research fellow at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, who specializes in the housing market.
Locals like Martha Ham, a board member of the nonprofit Conserve Southwest Utah and a landlord in Washington County, say there is a shortage of affordable housing for sale and long-term rentals.
It is just now affordability that Ham worries about. As the region deals with persistent drought, water will be crucial for the city’s growth, she said.
“The backdrop of all of this is that we’re living in a megadrought driven by climate change,” Ham said. “And we’re in a crisis with regard to providing water for new development.”
Ham wants housing designs to change to accommodate growth that supports livability and sustainability.
Her group also opposes the Lake Powell pipeline, which would move water from the Colorado River to communities like St. George. Many politicians in the region have said the pipeline is needed for the area to keep growing.
During her State of the City Address in February, St. George Mayor Michele Randall said the city will double in size in the next forty years and that the town needs to treat water like “liquid gold.”
“With our significant amount of growth comes some excitement in terms of new businesses, restaurants and economic development as a whole,” said David Cordero, communications and marketing director for the City of St. George. “It also creates challenges in terms of water, transportation and infrastructure. As a city, we strive to meet these challenges head-on and manage growth in the best way possible.”
For gym owner Spencer, who has a doctoral degree in business, the change is an opportunity, one that was exciting enough to make him leave his job at Northern Arizona University-Yuma.
“The demographics here in St. George fit the business model,” Spencer said. “I got the right age of families, the right age of income and the market size is right. The belief here in St. George from my research says that people enjoy exercise and a great place to come.”
Spencer said that the public schools in the county are considered excellent and did not shut down through the ongoing pandemic as another factor for moving to southern Utah. Commercial buildings have popped up in the area in just the five months since he opened his business.
“This is an area that is going to expand for quite some time. This is going to be a hot spot for business and retirement,” Spencer added.
Not everyone sees growth as an opportunity. Adam Brooking, another local from St. George, said that with the housing prices being “insane,” it is unlikely for him to stay in the area any longer.
“I grew up here and have seen the devastating growth first hand,” Brooking said. “It makes me sad to think that I probably won’t be able to live here much longer.”
Correction: April 5, 2:40 p.m. • This story has been updated to reflect that St. George is the fastest growing metro area, which includes Washington County, between July 2020 and July 2021. The story also updates the median sales price of a home in the county.