ST. GEORGE — During the past decade, a series of exceptional events have reshaped Utah’s population dynamics as people flock to the state as a place to live and play, but when it comes to growth, Washington County is leading the pack.
According to a recent report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute of the University of Utah, the state as a whole has experienced strong population growth, especially since 2013, and some in Southern Utah are feeling it.
Ask most longtime residents, and they will tell about the “good old days” when traffic congestion didn’t rival nearby cities like Las Vegas.
“I’ve lived here since 1986 and the town has changed so much, some for the good and some bad,” resident Kate Johnson said. “We have a lot of great restaurants, a vibrant downtown, but some days just getting a few blocks to the grocery store or to get gas is a challenge. Way too many people driving way too fast trying to beat the traffic light.”
Johnson is not alone in her frustration.
“Why do so many people want to move here?” Kevin Brown asked. “I’ve only been here for three years, but there are people everywhere. I love it here, but what’s going on?”
The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s research can answer some of the questions.
“There are quite a lot of things going on, especially in southwest Utah,” demographic analyst Emily Harris said, citing the “bustling economy” that has developed over the past 10 years in Washington County.
The institute’s research is based on housing data and building permits, K-12 public school enrollment, church membership and Internal Revenue Service tax exemptions.
“When we looked at this data, Washington County, in particular, had the highest percentage of growth across all of the data categories,” Harris said. “What we can say is that there is a lot of new construction – people moving in – and it’s not just the tried-and-true retirees, but it’s families with public school-age children.”
Based on the institute’s estimates calculated at the end of 2010, there is a clear upward trend of people moving to Southern Utah.
Washington County’s population rose by nearly 31% with 138,579 in 2010 to nearly an estimated 181,000 this year.
It’s not just a rise in the permanent population, but Southern Utah’s temporary resident population – defined as overnight visitors and seasonal residents – has increased as well.
In 2010 there were 10,477 housing units that were identified in Washington County as nonprimary homes that include second homes or timeshares. By 2017, this number reached 13,238 units.
Overnight visitors also increased.
According to Utah State Tax Commission records, Washington county’s transient room sales tax revenues – essentially, heads in hotel room beds – more than doubled between 2008 and 2017, increasing from $3.5 million to $7.7 million when adjusted for inflation.
This translates to overnight visitors spending almost $100 million more on Washington County accommodations in 2017 than in 2008 when the last data available was collected.
“We definitely see that Washington County has been building up its economy,” Harris said. “What we’ve noticed since 2010 is that, yes, there are retirees moving in, but now there is an economy that is growing around the retirees that are drawing in other people to fill the jobs.”
The growth in Southern Utah’s health care industry is a fine example of the synergy that exists between population growth and a vibrant economy, Harris added.
Across the state, population demographics have also changed, rising 16.5% from almost 2.8 million in 2010 to 3.2 million this year.
According to a policy institute report conducted in 2017, Washington County at the time was the fifth most populous county in Utah, growing from 13,900 residents in 1970 to 171,040 in 2018, or an absolute growth of nearly 160,000 people equaling a greater than 10-fold increase.
“What we do know is there are two kinds of population change,” Harris said. “There is net migration, or people moving in and out of an area, and natural increase, or births minus deaths.”
Washington County has experienced a 92% net migration which is “extremely” high, Harris added.
As with most researchers, Harris is cautious about making crystal ball predictions but said that historically, growth in any given area should level out, but there are many factors that sustain growth during a long period of time.
Although nobody knows what will come from the 2020 census, Harris said the institute’s estimates closely mirror government figures of population demographics.
“I error on the side of caution,” Harris said. “Although the census is next year … we think that whether or not our estimates are dead on or are off the pattern of growth is going to continue.”
At some point, Harris added, the current economic boom cycle in the Intermountain West should come to an end and with it, the population variations.
“County levels ebbs and flows with economic conditions,” she said. “The past decade is about Utah and its counties recovering from the Great Recession. We don’t assume this high growth will keep going on forever, but we think growth is going to be a constant companion for Utah for the foreseeable future.”
To the extent of what the growth looks like, demographers are unsure what population shifts will be in the future.
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