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If this is Utah's back-to-the-city decade, the U.S. Census Bureau isn't impressed.

Despite all of Salt Lake City's go-go condo development, high-rise cranes and warm feelings about smart growth, a Census Bureau report released today estimates that Utah's capital had fewer people last year than it did when the decade began.

Salt Lake's July 1, 2007 population was 180,651, the Census Bureau reported. That's down from 181,743 in the 2000 head count and 181,857 in a July 1, 2000 estimate.

The numbers are puzzling to some, who question how the city could shrink in a period when developers took out more than 3,700 residential building permits. But it makes perfect sense to the city's late-1990s economic development head and unsuccessful 1999 mayoral candidate: Mormons aren't welcome anymore.

Stuart Reid, who lost that election to progressive firebrand Rocky Anderson, said the victor went on to alienate Mormons who otherwise might have moved from suburb to city. Anderson started out quarreling with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the sale of a Main Street block, then angered conservatives by routinely denouncing President Bush.

"It was inviting for those that would follow his political bent, but it certainly was a turnoff to others of the LDS population," Reid said.

Reid, who went on to guide Ogden's economic development and now is a developer there, also questioned whether all of Salt Lake's new condos really amount to permanent settlers. About half of all condos, especially those on the higher end, are second homes, he said.

Anderson sees it differently. His administration, which ended last winter, embraced diversity in a way that should welcome more residents of all persuasions, he said. At the same time, he said, light-rail growth, transit-oriented development and denser housing options downtown have laid the groundwork for an urban explosion, if not sparking it already. He expects the city to grow quickly.

"We're at a pivotal point where more and more commuters are understanding that they're better off saving money and time, and probably a lot of aggravation, by not being stuck alone in a car for so many hours a week," Anderson said.

Pioneer Park neighbor Christian Harrison agrees. His downtown condo building in Uffen's Marketplace is full, and new neighbors are pouring in all around the block.

"It can't be too bad because I know of rental spaces here that are actually raising their rents. Either they're crazy or they're experiencing pressure to do that," he said.

And, he noted, his Mormon ward is healthy and growing.

"All of my anecdotal evidence says downtown doesn't reflect those [Census Bureau] numbers."

The story is the same in the Central City area, where new condos are virtually sold out, and growth will presumably accelerate when hundreds of condos go up with the City Creek project now under construction.

University of Utah demographer Pamela Perlich said she doesn't trust the interim Census Bureau counts and is confident the more thorough 2010 decade count indeed will show a back-to-the-city trend.

"I don't think they've got that right," she said. "There's been all those condos going in downtown. Presumably there are people living in them."

She's likewise skeptical of annual estimates that show nearby suburbs Taylorsville, Murray, Midvale and Cottonwood Heights growing sluggishly or not at all this decade. The bureau does capture the obvious strong growth in Washington and Utah counties, and in the south of Salt Lake County, though. South Jordan had the state's most new residents last year - around 4,000.

Salt Lake City rebounded in the 2000 census after decades of decline. The city peaked with 189,454 residents in the 1960 census, then dropped steadily to 159,936 in the 1990 count before getting back above 180,000 in 2000.

Top 10 cities: West Valley City holds the No. 2 spot ahead of Provo.

According to July 1, 2007 Census estimates:

No. Name of city Pop. est.

1. Salt Lake City 180,651

2. West Valley City 122,374

3. Provo 117,592

4. West Jordan 102,445

5. Sandy 96,074

6. Orem 93,078

7. Ogden 82,702

8. St. George 71,161

9. Layton 64,311

10. Taylorsville 58,620

Source: U.S. Census