West's building and population growth is not yet back to pre-Recession levels


When I started working for High Country News eight years ago this month, there was no shortage of issues to write about. Natural gas drilling was going nuts, nearly every sector of the economy was on fire and immigrants were streaming through the desert to live the dream. Perhaps most bewildering to me, however, were the immigrants coming to the West from the rest of the United States, buying homes, and causing small and big towns alike to sprawl out into desert, forest and farmland.

As a native of rural southwestern Colorado, I had a mixed reaction to the influx. It was painful, to say the least, to watch the land my ancestors had once homesteaded get gobbled up by mega-tract homes that I could never afford to own or rent. And any dummy could see that growth as an economic engine in itself was unsustainable. On the other hand, a rural community that never grows, that never has folks moving in and out, can be a pretty stagnant place. I knew that affluent newcomers could be the best bet for badly needed cultural and intellectual growth in my little town. My small-town upbringing yearned for more cosmopolitan flair. Later, when I owned businesses in Silverton, Colo., a tiny former mining town that missed the boom altogether – the population plummeted for years after the mine closed in 1992 – I understood the need for a certain amount of critical mass to keep a community, not to mention business, vital. Silverton, for one, desperately needed newcomers just to survive.

Arizona and Nevada were the two biggest boom states in the West, with the biggest population busts, too. Colorado kept a more steady growth curve and made it through the Recession less scathed. Data Source: US Census Bureau.

But the growth of the early 2000s went far beyond critical mass in some areas. Nevada grew at a rate of more than 4 percent per year, quadruple the national rate. Between 2005 and 2006, Arizona grew by almost 200,000 people, and demographers at the time expected the population to reach 8 million by 2015. Even after the Great Recession ripped through the Western housing market, growth-boosters and demographers alike didn’t believe it would create a big dip in population growth: As late as 2009, analysts at Arizona State University expected the Sun Corridor region of Arizona, a megapolitan area that includes Phoenix and Tucson, to grow by 140,000 people per year between 2010 and 2020.

If those analysts want to be proven right, they’ll need to get a lot more folks coming to the area in the next six years. Last month, the Census Bureau released state population stats as of July of last year, giving us a glimpse into what post-Recession growth might look like. For the boosters, it’s not good: Growth remains far below projections in most Western states. As for that 140,000 per year in Phoenix and Tucson? Nope. The entire state of Arizona has grown by far less than 100,000 annually since 2008, and a measly 75,000 between 2012 and 2013. Stats suggest that out-migration is outpacing in-migration. The “growth god,” as incisive columnist and former Phoenix journalist Jon Talton puts it, has failed. Nowhere is that more true than in New Mexico, where the population over the last year remained almost unchanged.

A Las Vegas architect told me recently that the Recession is the best thing that’s ever happened to Vegas. It provided a pause from the hectic growth, allowing officials and residents a chance to reconsider how they want their city to grow. Indeed, even as building returns in the far-out fringes pre-bust style Phoenix real estate folks report high demand for homes and lots a bit closer to the urban core (if Phoenix has one) and light rail stations. Similarly, an effort is afoot in Las Vegas to  bring folks from the fringes back into a revitalized and densified downtown. It seems conceivable, at least, that we in the West might actually put quality of growth above quantity.

Here's a snapshot, in a series of graphs, of the growth situation in the West from 2000-2013.

The rate of growth has slowed on both a national and regional level, but the West continues to grow faster than the nation as a whole. Data Source: US Census Bureau.

Wyoming was a latecomer to the population boom, finally posting big gains after housing markets elsewhere had collapsed, but while the natural gas boom was still on in Wyoming. That boom crashed with a drop in prices, and the population growth slowed with it. Notice also how New Mexico's growth essentially stalled in 2012-13. Data Source: US Census Bureau.

Data Source: US Census Bureau.

For the number lovers among you... Data Source: US Census Bureau.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He tweets @jonnypeace.