Pittsburgh region population uptick halts in '13

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The perceived turnaround in the Pittsburgh area's population after a half-century's descent may have halted in the most recent year, but to a barely imperceptible degree.

The seven-county metropolitan area lost 122 people between July 2012 and July 2013 to stand at 2,360,867, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates being released today.

That's still 4,582 more than in the official 2010 head count taken of Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties, as in the years since the census the region -- led by gains in Allegheny County -- had shown an ever-so-slight uptick in annual population estimates.

The new estimate shows net gains within Allegheny and Butler counties, counterbalanced by losses in the other five.

How to take the overall 122-person loss depends on the observer, though at an annual loss rate of 0.00005 percent no one is going to compare it to the mass exodus during the steel industry collapse of the 1980s.

To Christopher Briem, a University of Pittsburgh-based regional economist who studies demographic trends, it continues the recent trend of relative "stability" in population that is a positive after so many decades of drainage.

"Whether it's plus 100 people or minus 100, the population is stable," he said. "We've got enough people moving in to offset our natural population decline [from having more deaths than births among residents]. If the net migration is still a positive, for Pittsburgh that's pretty impressive."

But when advised of the new numbers being released today, Al Ambrosini, chairman of the Fayette County commissioners, called them a problem as showing a "stagnant" population.

In his own county, the estimates are actually worse than for the rest of the region, as Fayette showed up losing 669 people. It's a slower rate of loss than the average of more than 1,000 annually the county lost between 2000 and 2010, but Mr. Ambrosini believes any decline hurts both the county and region economically.

Having more people to buy goods and services bolsters local businesses, he said, while adding that better jobs are needed to keep and attract more people.

"Things are so competitive today -- not only locally, but nationally and internationally -- that you cannot survive at the status quo because everyone is passing you by," Mr. Ambrosini said. "We need to work hard to get a positive growth rate both locally and regionally."

The Census Bureau reported that of 381 metropolitan areas, 92 lost population between 2012 and 2013. Pittsburgh was the largest region to show any net loss.

The bureau develops its numbers between the decennial head counts by analyzing the net effect of births, deaths and estimated domestic and international migration in the prior year.

The region has had a long-term trend of showing more deaths than births, because of a relatively old population. As its economy began outperforming the national economy since the Great Recession, however, positive migration numbers compensated for the natural loss.

The new numbers mark the sixth straight year of positive net migration for the region. The biggest impact on that is an international net migration number of 2,446 in Allegheny County -- individuals who would largely be drawn to employment or studies at area universities and hospitals.

In a place like Fayette County that is still struggling to provide good jobs, Mr. Ambrosini noted, there's a double whammy because the people in their 20s and 30s who might be leaving for economic opportunities elsewhere are the same ones who could be having children locally to help offset the deaths of older residents.

"We have to create a lot more private sector jobs to get this to a positive number," he said of the population change. "Most young people really do want to live close to where their families are, but unfortunately, we've not been able to have the conditions where they can do that."

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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