Salt Lake County’s population may be twice as big, but Utah County attracted more new residents last year

Jeremy and Ember Ulrich are a young couple with a baby daughter who wanted to build a home in Sandy, where they grew up and near where their families live.

They found little vacant land was on the market and “what was available was expensive,” Ember Ulrich said.

So they looked farther south. In Bluffdale, they found that there wasn’t much in their price range with space for a good-size yard. They kept looking farther south.

The Ulriches ended up in Lehi, where they could afford to build a two-story, three-bedroom home on about a quarter acre of land. Not only could they buy more house for the money there, but it also was close to Jeremy’s job at Adobe in the Silicon Slopes.

The Ulriches’ story, repeated thousands of times by other families, is part of what’s driving Utah County’s growth to a rate twice that of much-larger Salt Lake County — 2.6% vs. 1.3%, according to new U.S. Census Bureau estimates released Thursday. The other driver is the area’s near-the-top-in-the-nation birthrate.

State researchers first noticed that Utah County was adding more people than Salt Lake County, and the Census Bureau’s revised numbers later acknowledged that has been happening since 2016. New estimates for 2018 clearly confirm the continuing trend, said Pam Perlich, demographics director at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

“In Salt Lake County, it’s just becoming more and more difficult for young families to afford housing close in,” Perlich said. “That’s pushing people farther and farther out — and there are just more open spaces in Utah County. And with an increase in employment opportunities in Utah County, it makes more and more sense for people to live and work there.”

Andrew Jackson, executive director of the Mountainland Association of Governments, a regional planning agency there, said more than just cheaper housing is fueling Utah County’s growth.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Construction continues on new buildings in Vineyard City in Utah County, Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

“We’re just friendly. We’re friendly to business. We’re friendly to people,” he said. People in the northern county can commute either to Salt Lake City or Provo, or closer to Silicon Slopes. And many people who attend Brigham Young University or Utah Valley University tend to like the area and stay.

“A lot of people come through to both universities. They get married, find a job and often their siblings start moving here," Jackson said. “Then the parents move in to be with their kids and grandkids.”

Perlich notes that most of the immigration into Utah County and the state as a whole is domestic, from other states. She said Salt Lake County is an exception to that, and most immigrants there are international — perhaps drawn to its more urban setting, apartments and jobs.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The move outward from Utah’s population center by people looking for more affordable housing or elbow room is fueling growth not only in Utah County, but also in counties that ring the Wasatch Front. Three of these counties were among the top 75 fastest growing large counties in America, the Census reported. Wasatch County was No. 12 nationally at 4%, Tooele was No. 23 at 3.7% and Juab was No. 75 at 2.7%.

Also, Heber City in Wasatch County ranked No. 3 nationally for its 4% growth among the nation’s “micropolitan areas” with populations between 10,000 and 50,000. It was No. 1 in the nation the previous two years.

Heber City and Wasatch County are examples of “the overflow really from the dynamic growth in Utah County,” Perlich said. “Many of those [Heber City] folk are commuting down to Utah County to work, and to some extent into Salt Lake County, too. … The ring counties around the Wasatch Front are really absorbing a lot of that suburban expansion.”

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Kevin Duron, right, and Luis Parriles, both of Orem, fish in the Provo River near Heber City Friday, May 5, 2017.

Wasatch County Manager Mike Davis said people “aren’t coming here for economic reasons. Our property values are sky-high, and they can probably get more house for their money elsewhere. …

“As I talk to people, most say they are coming here mostly for the lifestyle. It’s a little quieter, we’re close to the mountains, and we don’t have much pollution.”

New Census estimates suggest Iron County and its population center, Cedar City, are experiencing a growth pattern somewhat similar to areas ringing Salt Lake County, attracting overflow from the St. George metro area in neighboring Washington County.

“We’re getting some overflow,” said Iron County Commissioner Paul Cozzens. “A lot of people want to retire in St. George, but they find the property has become so expensive there that they migrate to Cedar City.”

Cozzens said Cedar City growth has also been fueled because of manufacturers coming or expanding there; a rail spur helping to attract new businesses; beautiful scenery; Southern Utah University; and construction of a new temple for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that has led many to move to be near it.

(Courtesy of the LDS Church) The Cedar City Utah Temple.

Those factors combined to help boost Cedar City to No. 4 nationally for growth among micropolitan areas at 3.8 percent, and appear to have pushed it into a higher classification as a metropolitan area, with a population estimated at 52,775. Iron County also grew 3.8 percent, ranking it No. 17 among large counties nationally.

Nearby St. George is still booming. It ranked No. 3 nationally among metropolitan areas for growth at 3.5%, down from its blistering 4% growth a year earlier that had ranked No. 1 nationally.

“Decelerating slightly is not necessarily a bad thing,” Perlich said. “When you have that kind of explosive rate, it’s very difficult to stay on top of quality growth and keep up with infrastructure…. These areas in southwest Utah have a strong but manageable growth rate right now.”

St. George has an extra challenge. Emily Harris, demographer at the Gardner Institute, notes that a recent study it conducted showed that besides its permanent residents — now at 171,700 — seasonal and overnight visitors increase that by 57,000 people at peak times, creating additional demands for services.

While the latest Census estimates show growth in most of Utah, three rural counties lost population: Daggett (down 4.1%), Wayne (down 1.1%) and Emery (down 0.1%).

Perlich said the shrinking population in Daggett, already the state’s smallest, came mostly because its county jail closed after the state pulled about 80 inmates in the wake of an inmate abuse scandal. The latest estimates indicate a loss of 44 people, dropping the county population to 980.

“The closure of a group quarters in such a small county has a big effect,” she said, with the loss of inmates and perhaps people who had worked there and their families.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Daggett County Jail in 2007.

The small decrease in Emery County — six people, with a population now of 10,014 — continues to show struggles in coal mining areas, she said. And Wayne, losing 31 people with a population of 2,690, is an example of a rural area where young people tend to move away to find jobs.

Still, Perlich said new data shows Utah growth overall is strong, and is sign that its healthy economy is attracting many new immigrants, which may change the face of the state and its culture.

“People are coming not just from the Intermountain West, they are moving cross country and they are moving internationally,” she said. “That’s driving the increasing diversity of Utah’s population linguistically, culturally, ethnically, racially and religiously.”

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