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Utah's growth slows a bit, but population nears 3.2 million

'Still, it's a lot of new people — let's not kid ourselves,' says state's top demographer

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's galloping population growth has slowed to a trot, according to new data released Tuesday.

In the last year, the Beehive State added enough new people to fill Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah and spill over into its vast parking lot. The increase of about 52,600 raised the population of Utah to nearly 3.2 million as of July 1, according to estimates from the Utah Population Committee.

It's a smaller bump from a year earlier, when the number of Utahns swelled by about 6,300 more people. It means Utah's growth spurt has slowed for the first time since 2013.

"Still, it's a lot of new people — let's not kid ourselves," said Pam Perlich, director of demographics at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. "I'd say we're at a nice, steady jog. That's manageable for the long distance."

Perlich, the state's top demographer, said several factors have pulled in the reins on growth.

For one, Utahns are having fewer kids. The number of births in Utah has dropped to its lowest point since 2000 — a development Perlich calls "stunning." She notes that Utah, long first in the nation for its rate of babies born to women in their child-bearing years, now lags behind South Dakota. The Midwestern state in 2017 logged a fertility rate of 2.23, over Utah's 2.12. On the other end, deaths in the Beehive State have risen as its population ages.

More and more newcomers have long come and stayed in Utah, but the streak ended this year. The contingent is responsible for a little less than half of the statewide growth, and their presence often indicates a strong economy, Perlich said.

The dip in newcomers living in Utah — from 46 percent of total growth last year to 44 percent this year — may indicate that Utah's sturdy economy is now facing competition from other states that are feeling a boost from federal tax cuts, said Jim Robson, senior economist at Utah's Department of Workforce Services.

"Our employers tell us it is difficult finding some of the people needed to find the jobs available," Robson said. But the brakes on growth don't alarm him.

"It's still in a pretty good clip," he said.

That's especially true in several communities just outside Utah's urban corridor, where those from other parts of the state or country continue to move in. The hot spots include Tooele County to the west, Juab to the south and Wasatch County in the east.

The change is apparent in even the tiny corners of mountainous Wasatch County, including Charleston, population 470, said Mayor Brenda Kozlowski. The town relies on septic, has no eateries and is home to few businesses other than a cabinetmaker. It is divided by U.S. 189.

"It's just a quaint, little place tucked off by Deer Creek Reservoir," Kozlowski said.

The quick access to fishing and camping there have drawn retired couples from California in recent years, plus some families from out of state. Charleston leaders have handed out at least seven building permits in the past few months.

"That's a lot for us," Kozlowski said.

In nearby Heber City, several apartments and condominiums are under construction, including one building designed with affordability in mind — rents there will depend on a person's income when the complex on 1200 South opens in a few months, said Kozlowski, also a board member for the Wasatch County Housing Authority.

Nate Entrekin delivers kitchen cabinets to the Prestige II construction site in Heber City on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. When it opens, the complex will offer affordable rental units.
Nate Entrekin delivers kitchen cabinets to the Prestige II construction site in Heber City on Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018. The Prestige II will be an affordable rental community for senior citizens.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In the state's southwestern corner, Iron and Washington counties both grew by more than 3 percent in the last year — a trend possibly fueled by an uptick in retirees, the recreation industry and colleges there (Southern Utah University and Dixie State University). And in Utah County, newborns continue to fuel growth.

It's not as rosy a picture in Emery County, which has lost about 300 people — or 2.8 percent of the total — in the past 8 years. After coal mines in the area shuttered, many who formerly called the county home have headed north to Wyoming, said Amanda Leonard, director of the Emery County Business Chamber.

"We've definitely been hurt," she said.

The figures don't capture the county's ongoing transformation into a destination for climbers and other adventurers, Leonard said. There are fewer for sale signs in Leonard's town of Castle Dale than a few years ago, and many of the homes are now Airbnb rentals. A new coffee shop caters to those who attend the Joe's Valley Bouldering Festival in the fall. And an initiative to help residents work online from their homes is also in its early stages.

"We're working on a few things to get ourselves back out there," Leonard said.

The Utah Population Committee, a group of demographers, state officials and others, calculates the Utah numbers in part to watchdog the U.S. Census Bureau's estimates. The trends the Utah panel identified are consistent with the most recent census projections, the committee wrote in a Tuesday report.

The figures come on the heels of new census numbers showing that many in Utah's rural counties remain impoverished, even though the state's overall poverty rate has ebbed from about 13 percent in 2010 to roughly 9 percent in 2017.

"It's a significant improvement," said Carrie Mayne, chief economist at Workforce Services.

Within the overall picture, however, she and Perlich note that 1 in 4 San Juan County residents live in poverty, compared to 4 percent of those in Morgan County.

"This economic recovery and expansion has been wonderful for everyone in the top 25 percent," Perlich said, "but everyone else is either holding steady or falling."