Population estimates see growth year for Greater Pittsburgh

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It may be too early to call Greater Pittsburgh the comeback region of the year, but estimates released Monday by the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that four counties, including Allegheny, made population gains last year.

"We think that maybe we've finally turned the corner and may be on the upswing now," said Kevin Evanto, spokesman for Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato. "We see the census numbers. We feel optimistic."

The new numbers are only estimates for mid-2009 through mid-2010, and they come just days before the much-anticipated release of solid county and municipal numbers from the 2010 census. That count almost certainly will show population declines over the course of the decade for all of the region's counties except for Butler and Washington.

It's the 2010 census, rather than the annual estimates, that will guide the redrawing of political boundaries. The estimates can affect some forms of federal funding, although the just-released numbers don't seem likely to drive any dramatic funding shift.

Still, as demographer Christopher Briem said, the story of the region can best be understood using both the decennial census and the annual estimates.

"If you're just comparing trends over a 10-year period, you're missing what may be happening year over year," said Mr. Briem, of the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research. What appears to have happened from mid-2009 through mid-2010, and in the year before that, too, is what he called "net population migration into the region" -- more people moving in than out.

If it holds, that would reverse decades of drain. And even if the rebound is far more tentative than the decline was, it's something, officials said.

The biggest winner, in raw numbers, was Allegheny County, gaining an estimated 1,204 people from mid-2009 to mid-2010, bringing its total to 1,220,510. Although it follows a gain of 853 the year before, the county's estimated population is still down 61,156 residents from the official 2000 census figure.

The Census Bureau estimated that Beaver County gained 159 residents, Butler 821, and Washington 267 from mid-2009 through mid-2010.

For Beaver County, like Allegheny, that represents the second year of rebounding population but isn't enough to erase the losses of the earlier years of the decade. For Butler and Washington counties, the estimated gains continued a decade-long trend that has seen their populations grow by thousands to an estimated 185,178 and 207,056, respectively.

The result is what Mr. Briem called "the first overall increase in the regional population in decades."

Estimated population losers are Armstrong County, down 377; Fayette, down 625; Greene, down 179; Lawrence, down 524; Somerset, down 437; and Westmoreland, down 523 from one year to the next.

Ken Raybuck, executive director of the Community Development Corp. of Butler County, said growth there has been driven by two things: Cranberry and low property taxes.

"We've weathered the recession better in Butler County, throughout the county, not just in the southern portion of it," he added.

Mr. Briem said the region's relatively mild recession probably should get part of the credit for the population results. The area has had somewhat lower unemployment, and somewhat firmer economic growth and income growth, than the nation as a whole, he said.

But the result may be more than a temporary side-effect of the national recession, said Mr. Briem, who runs complex computer simulations that predict population changes. "Our model has been showing that the population decline would be abating, would tick up to a small or moderate level of growth," he said.

Mr. Evanto, too, said something more than the recession appears to be at work.

"We finally have an economy that doesn't rely on just one industry," he said. "We have a lot of jobs available out there. ... We've been getting a lot of accolades from the national and international media," including top rankings for quality of life, thanks in part to factors like jobs, trails and greenspace.

"It really looks like population bottomed out in 2008."

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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