Pittsburgh's population expected to grow in a few years
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When Jackie Quinn looked to leave Detroit for a different environment to raise a family a couple of years ago, she hesitated about Pittsburgh, which sounded so much like where she'd been.
Then she made a visit.
"I went to Pittsburgh for the weekend and really, truly fell in love with it," said the 40-year-old, who soon afterward quit her marketing job with Chrysler Corp.
Moving into a 24th-floor apartment Downtown with her work-from-home husband and 4-year-old child in December 2008, Ms. Quinn unknowingly may have helped end the historic, unusual free-fall of the local population.
Between July 2008 and July 2009, Allegheny County's population nudged upward for the first time in nearly two decades, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates released in March. The metropolitan area's population still dipped, but by just 434 residents -- by far the smallest number since the 2000 census.
Census estimates for 2009 for the city of Pittsburgh itself are to be released Tuesday. On a percentage basis, losses for the city have been even greater than for the county and region over the past half-century.
No one knows if or when local population trends among the worst in the nation since the 1960s have actually bottomed out. Some changes in Census Bureau methodology possibly inflated 2009 numbers compared to 2008 for the county and other parts of Pennsylvania, demographers note. The official count of people for the 2010 census -- based on household mailings and door-knocking that is nearly complete -- won't give true numbers until next March.
Those official numbers will show yet another overall decade of decline, if estimates from 2001 to 2008 were accurate, but the intriguing question is whether the population pendulum is finally starting to swing positively.
That's a riddle that takes more than one year to answer. Allegheny County's estimated 2008-09 gain of 267 from a base of 1.2 million should hardly overwhelm the most optimistic of civic boosters, but many officials hope it's the first sign of something meaningful.
"A good three or four years are needed to project it as a trend ... but as to whether we're starting to gain more rapidly than everyone projected, we're keeping our fingers crossed," said Bob Hurley, Allegheny County deputy director of economic development.
Christopher Briem, a regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh, noted that the Pittsburgh area's unemployment rate has been lower than or equal to the national rate for the past 43 months. He figures that's the biggest factor in Allegheny County's uptick, with more job-seekers moving into the county than moving out.
The last time the county or the region saw the barest of population growth was in the early 1990s, when the local economy also weathered a national recession well.
"The fact that migration [from other parts of the U.S.] for us was positive is itself big news," Mr. Briem said of the latest county estimates. "We'll never know, if there wasn't a recession, where we'd be right now," in terms of stemming population drain.
One unusual aspect of the recent estimates is that Allegheny County outperformed the rest of the seven-county metropolitan area population-wise. For decades, most of the region's population loss has come from Allegheny, just as most of Allegheny's drain has come from shrinkage within the city itself.
Mr. Briem said it's too soon to tell if that county gain is related to people moving closer to the urban core because of an increase in gasoline prices or other factors. He noted that even with all of the city's population losses, its Downtown has remained a stronger employment center than in many cities. And in other cities, there have already been indications that the peak period of "exurban" growth -- commuters willing to live far from the city -- is past.
When one looks for evidence of where any population growth in the county is taking place -- or in the city, if it's also occurring there -- the Golden Triangle is one obvious location, because of its recent condominium and apartment construction.
Todd Kilgore, who moved to Downtown Pittsburgh from Denver with his girlfriend four years ago, is happy living a five-minute walk from his Smithfield Street office in commercial print sales.
"There are weeks that go by when we don't leave Downtown at all," said Mr. Kilgore, 34, a Cultural District apartment-dweller.
The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership estimates that there are 2,000 more non-student residents of Downtown, the North Shore, Uptown, the Bluff, the Lower Hill and Strip District than 10 years ago, due to various developments among those close-in neighborhoods.
In addition to Downtown growth that didn't exist a decade ago, the county's numbers could be affected positively by international migration. Mr. Briem noted that the Census Bureau has estimated growth in Allegheny County's Hispanic population of about 1,000 annually in recent years, though the 18,528 is still a small number compared to most large counties. And again, it's a hard-to-estimate number that won't be known until results are provided of the 2010 head count.
All of the 2009 census numbers could be questioned, in that they're tied to the last decennial census in 2000 as a base, which becomes less reliable with each additional year. The updates are largely a reflection of annual births and deaths and IRS data. But they're the best anyone has to go by for now.
Even more challenging than population estimating is population forecasting. That's reflected in the disparity among projections for Allegheny County from different sources, all made before the census bureau suggested the 2008-09 uptick.
In a projection used by Mr. Briem, known as the Pittsburgh REMI model, the county shows modest population gains over the next decade but sharper ones in the 2020s, to gain nearly 200,000 residents over the next two decades. That would mark quite a change from having lost some 410,000 over the past five decades.
A private consulting service, Woods & Poole Economics Inc., forecasts slimmer growth in the next decade and the same pace thereafter, for a gain of less than 17,000 by 2030.
And the Pennsylvania State Data Center sees more long-term decline instead of growth, having predicted in 2008 that Allegheny County would have about 85,000 fewer residents in 2030 than it does now.
Sue Copella, director of the data center, said that gloomy forecast is driven largely by the negative history of recent decades. Rather than guess at future influences on population, the data center leans on a demographic theory that whatever's been happening will keep happening.
Mr. Briem said economic factors play a key part in the Pittsburgh REMI projection and some of the region's recent hardships were so severe that it wouldn't make sense to project them as being duplicated in the future.
In any case, he said, it's ironic that merely modest growth like he expects over the next two decades would seem dramatic, when other regions take it for granted.
But any population turnaround -- if and when it comes for the city, county, region or all three -- would clearly be welcome for a place that has been losing people at the same time it regularly receives most-livable accolades, whether from Rand McNally or Jackie Quinn. Sometimes, after all, the proof is in the numbers.
"I think the notion of having growth, even modest, brings optimism on multiple fronts," said Rob Stephany, executive director of the city Urban Redevelopment Authority.
First Published June 21, 2010 12:00 am