Western Slope population growth slows

Western Colorado’s buoyant growth rate during the first decade of the century slowed, and for a time reversed, according to state estimates.

State Demographer Elizabeth Garner remains optimistic that the region already has resumed growing and that its long-term prospects are for better, if not brighter days.

There won’t a sharp population increase, Garner said, “but at least there will be positive growth over the next decade.”

Mesa County saw a 0.8 percent annual growth rate from 2010 to 2011, while Delta County’s population was down 1.5 percent and Montrose County’s down 0.4 percent.

Garfield County’s population stayed flat, up 0.2 percent, while Rio Blanco County saw the sharpest growth rate, 2.5 percent.

Mesa County has averaged about 2 percent annual growth through its history, so the rate estimated by the demographer’s office is a bit less than half the norm.

“I’m not surprised it’s that flat,” Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President Diane Schwenke said of the population estimates, noting that the economic recovery that started in 2011 elsewhere had a slowing effect in western Colorado.

“We started to see job growth that wasn’t happening here and people have to go where the jobs are,” Schwenke said. “We haven’t seen the recovery here yet.”

Garfield County, the population of which barely budged in 2010 and 2011, has seen much of the same flight for jobs that Schwenke noted in Mesa County, Commissioner John Martin said.

Individuals and companies had decamped to other places where drilling is continuing, such as eastern Colorado, North Dakota and Pennsylvania, but they are maintaining presences in western Colorado, Martin said.

“We’re not out of the energy business by any means,” Martin said. At the same time, though, “I see $1 million a month going out on human-services stuff.”

One thing could help that, Martin said: “We need some jobs.”

Two factors, both related to individuals’ and employers’ indecision about the economy, are contributing to slowing growth in western Colorado, Schwenke said,

“Retirees are staying put” and not moving to western Colorado as they wait to see what will happen with Social Security and taxes, she said. Companies are similarly stymied from making decisions until they have more certainty about the future.

Delta County, which took the biggest population hit, is now seeing a contradictory trend, County Administrator Robbie LeValley said.

As of October, “Our sales tax revenue is actually up 4.2 percent,” she said.

No one quite knows what drive sales taxes up, LeValley said, and only time will tell if the population and sales-tax trends hold. “I think we’re all waiting,” she said.

As is the case with Garfield, Mesa and Rio Blanco counties, which are more closely tied to the energy industry, Montrose has seen population bleed off to states such as North Dakota, where the drilling business is proceeding apace, said Sandy Head, president of the Montrose Economic Development Corp.

The population slowdown is a marked change, Head said.

“Even 10 years ago, we were at 2.65 percent (annual growth,) almost a full percentage point higher than the rest of the state, and that certainly isn’t the case now,” she said.

The demographer’s annual estimates also included cities.

Grand Junction topped the 60,000 mark by 170 in 2011, according to the estimate, with a 1.7 percent annual growth rate. Fruita grew 1.2 percent to 12,778 and Palisade’s population was flat at 2,685.

As was the case with the county, the city of Delta’s population slipped, by 1.6 percent, to 8,751.

In Garfield County, Rifle grew by 0.1 percent, to 9,145, and Glenwood Springs’ population held steady at 9.570.

The city of Montrose saw a population drop of 0.3 percent, to 19,036.

In Rio Blanco County, Meeker grew by 2 percent to 2,505, while Rangely grew a bit faster, 2.4 percent, to 2,403.


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