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New U.S. Census Bureau estimates show that places like Heber City, Morgan and St. George are among the fastest growing in America but they also show something unusual is happening in Salt Lake and Utah counties. And some residents may not like it.
The two counties essentially are merging demographically into "one big metropolitan area," and growth seems to be shifting toward Utah County after being focused for decades in Salt Lake County, said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.
The estimates released Thursday show that between 2014 and 2015, the two counties each added about the same number of new residents 14,426 in Salt Lake and 13,671 in Utah even though Salt Lake County's population is twice as large.
Perlich said Salt Lake County traditionally has the largest growth in raw numbers, but now that is shifting toward Utah County especially in the northern part of that county, the home of many new high-tech companies.
Salt Lake County's growth also tends to be in its southern portion, showing northern Utah County and southern Salt Lake County are essentially "being more integrated, more knit together," Perlich said. For example, most commuting used to be from Utah County to Salt Lake County, but Perlich said the gap is narrowing and the numbers are converging.
"When they redevelop the old prison site in Draper ... I think it will just cement it," she said. "It will make it real that we're one big metropolitan area."
New census data show that the Provo-Orem metro area ranked 20th for growth nationally last year among metro areas, up 2.4 percent.
Provo Mayor John Curtis says people are attracted to his city, in part, because "we have a low unemployment rate, lots of jobs lots of good-paying jobs." He says people are attracted by "the cost of living, the quality of life" and because they "are discovering the mountains, the lake and the rivers. ... All those things are combining to make this a great place to live."
He adds, "The challenge for all of us is how to continue to grow at that pace and still enjoy our quality of life."
New estimates also show that Wasatch and Morgan counties were among the top 20 in the nation for growth. Wasatch County was seventh for counties with populations of at least 10,000, with a growth rate of 4.95 percent. Morgan County was 11th at 4.22 percent.
"Again, that is suburban expansion of the urban area," Perlich said.
Many young families, she added, that could not afford homes during the Great Recession are buying them now, many in those two counties because they can afford some extra acreage there.
"People are just looking for a more rural atmosphere," said Heber City Manager Mark Anderson. Heber offers that, he said, plus short commutes to Utah County, Salt Lake City and Park City where many residents work.
"There's a perceived higher quality of life here," he said.
Heber City's growth of 4.95 percent also ranked third nationally among "micropolitan" areas with populations between 10,000 and 50,000. It now has a population of 29,161, up by 25 percent since the 2010 census.
Morgan County Council Chairman Logan Wilde lists similar reasons for growth there. His rural county's population now is 11,065, up 17 percent since the 2010 census.
He said Morgan also has easy commutes to Ogden and Salt Lake County.
"We were voted for the seventh year in a row as the healthiest ... [county] to live in Utah," Wilde said. "We're up out of the smog. Our crime rate is really low."
Elsewhere in the state, St. George ranked 17th among the nation's metro areas for growth, up by 2.45 percent.
"It is one of the most beautiful places on Earth to live, and we have awesome weather. We rank very low in crime," Washington County Commissioner Zachary Renstrom said about some reasons for growth there. "We're getting really good opportunities for new jobs down here."
Renstrom adds that much of the growth comes because "we get a lot of people who come down here for retirement."
Nearby Cedar City ranked 13th nationally for growth among micropolitan areas, up 2.35 percent during the year.
Vernal ranked 10th among micropolitan areas for its 2.61 percent growth. But it surely has seen its population drop since July 1, 2015, the date for the new population estimates.
"Because of the decline in oil and gas prices and the downturn in the economy here, people lost jobs and are moving out to find employment elsewhere," said Vernal City Manager Ken Bassett.
He said growth in the Uinta Basin accelerates and drops with the oil industry, and the current decline began in about June.
Bassett said he's lived in Vernal for 38 years. "So I've seen the ups and downs. This one I would consider to be more significant than most."
Data show that 22 of 29 counties in Utah had population increases last year.
Those where the population dropped are Emery, 2.46 percent; Beaver, 1.55 percent; Kane, 1.44 percent; Daggett, 0.98 percent; Wayne, 0.77 percent; Carbon, 0.68 percent; and Garfield, 0.14 percent. Perlich says that continues a recent trend in which rural areas are losing population, especially in Utah's coal country.
Salt Lake County's population exceeded 1.1 million for the first time 1,107,314 to be exact. The population of the other most populous counties are Utah, 575,205; Davis, 336,043 (up by 6,349 people); Weber, 243,645 (up by 3,145); and Washington, 155,602 (up by 3,726).