By Haya El Nasser and Paul Overberg
After years of record foreclosures and job losses, the Sun Belt is recovering some of its lost appeal as the population begins to grow again in counties from Florida to Arizona.
At the same time, new ways to tap the nation's rich supply of natural resources - from oil to gold - continue to create boom towns in some remote Western counties and parts of the Great Plains that have suffered decades of population declines.
Census county population estimates out today for July 1, 2012, show a nation in flux after a grueling economic downturn. Counties such as Arizona's Maricopa (Phoenix), Nevada's Clark (Las Vegas) and Florida's Orange (Orlando) all show population gains that are once again outpacing national growth.
"Even the deepest recession since the Great Depression cannot permanently disrupt the decades-long trend of growth in the South and West,'' says Robert Lang, professor of urban affairs at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. "Now that we're several years past the recession, things are slowly getting back to where they were."
Some of the fastest recent gains are in or near the Great Plains and Texas - regions benefiting from oil and gas drilling and processing. Texas had 11 of the 50 fastest-growing counties. In Elko, Nev., one of the fastest-growing small urban areas, gold mining is the lure.
Williams, N.D., was the fastest-growing among counties with more than 10,000 people. Williston, its main city, and surrounding areas gained 9.3% in one year.
"Parts of the country that were given up for dead end up producing new life," Lang says. "Technology keeps changing, so our ability to access resources changes. America's mineral and energy abundance is the gift that keeps on giving."
Despite glimmers of growth and rebound, the recession's impact on birth rates is being felt in more corners of the country. Natural decrease (when deaths outnumber births) occurred in a record 1,135 counties, or more than a third, according to Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute. For the first time, there were more deaths than births overall in two states: Maine and West Virginia.
As recently as 2009, this scenario happened in just 880 counties.
Natural decreases are happening more often because there are fewer births, Johnson's analysis shows - 4 million last year nationwide compared with a record 4.3 million before the recession.The decline is concentrated in rural areas of the Great Plains, the Corn Belt, east and central Texas, the Ozarks and Upper Great Lakes.
"It is no longer an isolated phenomenon," Johnson says. "Once natural decrease begins in a county, it is likely to recur. ... With few young adults and a growing older population, the future viability of many natural decrease areas is not encouraging."
Charlevoix County in northern Michigan, pop. 26,023, is barely growing (it added 20 people in one year) but has experienced 43 more deaths than births.
"A lot of people build second homes and retire up here, and we do have an aging population," says planning coordinator Kiersten Stark. "One of the things that is a challenge is trying to get young people to stay here after they graduate from high school."
What the numbers show:
Now that the Sun Belt is rebounding, people once again are leaving large Northeastern metropolitan areas. Florida, one of the states hardest hit by foreclosures, is making a comeback.
"We've become more affordable and people are coming back," says Lesley Deutch, senior vice president at John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Boca Raton. "Retirees are one segment of it and the foreign buyers are another."
The Orlando area is rebounding fast because there is plenty of available land, and buyers from Latin America and Europe like to be near Disney World, she says.
Despite an improved jobs and housing picture, Americans continue to be cautious about settling in far-flung suburbs - areas hardest hit by foreclosures - and are sticking close to urban centers. Last year, more than half the growth in large metropolitan areas was in the central city or its close-in suburbs, up 19 percentage points in five years. The most remote suburbs claimed only 21% of the growth, down from 47% in 2007.
The lure of striking it rich quickly is fueling much of the growth in the Great Plains, and that doesn't necessarily portend a bright future, says retired RAND demographer Peter Morrison.
"Like their 1970s predecessors, today's energy boom towns will find that newcomers who make instant cities don't always make instant citizens,'' he says.
Rutgers University planning professor Frank Popper and his wife, geographer Deborah Popper, are renowned for their Buffalo Commons proposal that advocates turning large parts of the rural Plains into a nature preserve and reintroducing the American bison.
The Poppers, who teach at Princeton University, warn that the recent growth spurt in the Great Plains is limited to oil-rich areas and that most North Dakota Plains counties are still losing population.
"We suspect that the overall depopulation continues," Frank Popper says. "Oil and natural gas make a terrible tenant or neighbor, especially over the long run. ...The booming towns may eventually look back and see that the rush profited relatively few people and groups, and that they're all long gone."