Region's population turnaround has lasted and grown
Share with others:
It wasn't long ago that Allegheny County was a drag on the region's population.
Numbers being released today by the U.S. Census Bureau show the exact opposite now to be true, with the county and Pittsburgh metropolitan area apparently in the midst of their healthiest population trend in decades.
The first report since the official April 1, 2010, census of Americans estimated that the population of the seven-county metro area increased by 3,461 between that head count and July 1, 2011. The metropolitan area's population was pegged at 2,359,746. Allegheny County did even better, with an estimated increase of 3,718 over those 15 months, to 1,227,066.
Such increases are small compared with most urban areas around the country, but they take on a positive shine locally when contrasted with the past half-century of sustained population losses. It was only between 2009 and 2010 that the first slight uptick began to emerge in estimates for the region and its hub county, and the new numbers suggest the turnaround has lasted and grown stronger.
"I'm not surprised by it at all," said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, when told of the numbers. "There's a lot of growth going on in the economy that's borne out by the unemployment statistics and jobs numbers, and that typically is followed by population. ... We could see it had turned, and I think it's going to continue to turn, because the urban core -- the county itself -- is desirable again."
When broken down by the components of population change -- births and deaths and migration -- it was clear that for both the county and region the main difference from the past is that more people are moving in from outside the area than leaving.
That net migration gain is assumed to result from the relative strength of the Pittsburgh area's economy in recent years. The seven-county local unemployment rate of 6.7 percent in February compared to Pennsylvania's rate of 7.6 percent and a national rate of 8.3 percent, a pattern that has favored the local area for five-plus years.
Allegheny County's status as a net acquirer of people is the biggest change taking place in the regional population. It had been common in recent decades for Butler and Washington counties to gain residents, as they did again between 2010 and 2011, but it has been rarer -- or nonexistent -- for many years in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Fayette and Westmoreland counties.
Just five years earlier, when the census estimates showed a regional loss of 10,895 people between 2005 and 2006, Allegheny County's own decrease was responsible for 9,625 of that drop.
Mr. Fitzgerald said he's aware of both large and small employers recently adding jobs, a particular boost when considering the increasing number of students attending colleges within the county and interested in staying here after graduation -- but only if career opportunities exist.
David Martin -- a Realtor, investment adviser and lending specialist in the North Hills since 1987 -- said the population numbers confirm what he has been seeing. Just Wednesday, he was dealing with three different households recently returning to Allegheny County from Florida for varying economic and family reasons.
"We had an entire generation that had to leave because of the mills closing," Mr. Martin noted. "Now people see how pretty cool this place is. The pace here is slower, the success is better and the number of movies being made here in Pittsburgh doesn't hurt our ambassadorship. There's a number of strands that build the rope."
Chris Briem, a University of Pittsburgh demographer and regional economist, pointed to numbers suggesting it may have been the 1920s since the last time Allegheny County had any sustained period of more people moving in than moving out. Consistently for decades, it has lost people to both adjacent counties and distant cities.
He said it's possible that the county and region are in the early stages of a long-term trend of modest growth, which could have been viewed as inevitable because the dire manufacturing setbacks that caused population losses among the worst in the nation had dimmed as a factor.
"The question is what happens as the nation as a whole moves past the recession, as clearly a lot more job gains will happen elsewhere," he said.
First Published April 5, 2012 9:05 am