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S.L. population lost 1% over past 3 years

Provo stayed about same size; W.V. grew 2.6%

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Salt Lake City's upward population trend during the 1990s appears to have halted. Utah's capital city lost about 1 percent of its population over the past three years, according to new census information.

Between 2000 and 2003, Salt Lake City saw a net loss of some 1,873 people, with the city's population declining to an estimated 179,894 residents, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released today.

Utah's largest city was one of 73 population losers in a Census Bureau growth ranking of the nation's 245 cities with populations of over 100,000.

"One percent isn't terrible," said Neil Olsen, information planner for Salt Lake City's economic and demographic resource center. "We're just sort of holding steady."

Meanwhile, Provo's population remained virtually unchanged at 105,410, the U.S. Census Bureau's estimate shows, and West Valley City grew by 2.6 percent to 111,687 people.

Nationally, eight of the 10 fastest-growing large cities were in Arizona, California or Nevada. Gilbert, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix , grew by 32 percent between April 1, 2000, and July 1, 2003. On the other end of the spectrum, St. Louis lost a higher percentage of its population — 4.6 percent — than any other city.

Aaron Crim, communications manager for West Valley City, said low property taxes and new residential communities are feeding his city's growth.

"West Valley is a very culturally diverse community with a lot of things to offer," he said. "A lot of first-time homebuyers especially are attracted to the new developments."

Olsen said the LDS Church's plan to move the LDS Business College and the Salt Lake extension center of Brigham Young University to downtown as early as 2006 could help boost Salt Lake's population.

The city's population had grown from 159,936 in 1990 to an estimated 181,767 in 2000, according to the census.

Salt Lake's population decline came when construction jobs related to the 2000 Olympics tapered off and the nation fell into an economic recession, Olsen said.

While Olsen said the census numbers are "as accurate as we're going to get" for cities, some demographers said the estimates have undercounted the population.

Neil Ashdown, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, said he'd be surprised if Utah's capital is actually losing residents. Likewise, Shawn Eliot, transportation planner for Mountainland Association of Governments, said based on new residential building permits, Provo appears to be growing.

"What we've typically found is Census Bureau estimates for local numbers like that have typically been low," Eliot said.

Ashdown said that while the state does not estimate city population, it does estimate county populations, using a different method than the census. The result is different numbers. He said the Utah Population Estimates Committee's 2003 population estimates for Salt Lake County showed 940,465 people, while the census showed a population 924,247.

Ashdown said suburbs are growing more rapidly than Salt Lake City because the cost of the city's real estate is increasing.

"As children grow up who may have grown up in Salt Lake City . . . they often can't afford to move into the same neighborhood their parents lived in, they're moving into newer developments," he said.

The Census Bureau released population estimates for the nation's 19,450 incorporated places but only ranked large cities by size and growth. It also released estimates for minor civil divisions.

E-mail: dbulkeley@desnews.com