Summit County’s population only grew by three residents from 2017 to 2018, U.S. Census says
After years of stable, if limited, growth, Summit County’s population hit a pretty big speed bump last year. According to 2018 Annual Estimates of Resident Population from the U.S. Census Bureau, Summit County only grew by three net residents from 2017 to 2018 — the lowest population growth charted in Summit since it dipped during the recession.
While the almost non-existent growth — from 31,004 residents in 2017 to 31,007 as of July 1, 2018 — may be seen as good news for some locals tired of crowds and overburdened infrastructure, it also causes concern for businesses that need a pool of local skilled employees to draw from. The population estimate also affects resource allocation for government aid and grant programs.
The Census Bureau estimates population totals from three factors — births, deaths and migration. Births and deaths are calculated from birth and death certificates logged into the National Center for Health Statistics, while net migration is calculated from four factors including tax returns, Medicare enrollment and Social Security number identification.
The sum total is added to the “base” population from the last general census — 2010, when Summit County was estimated to have 27,994 residents — to find the current population estimate.
The single-digit resident growth is the lowest the county has seen since 2010–11, when population dipped by 33 residents in the wake of the recession. In the years between, the county had seen an increase of at least a few hundred residents each year.
Looking at the numbers from neighboring Eagle, it seems Summit isn’t the only ski resort community with precipitous growth slowdown. The Census Bureau estimated that Eagle only grew by a single resident, from 54,992 residents to 54,993, between 2017 and 2018.
The state demography office’s estimates of migration give more credence to these very low net growth counts. While the net migration number for 2018 is not available, the demography office estimated that net migration in 2017 was a net positive of 20 residents for Summit, while Eagle actually lost 113 residents.
In contrast, neighboring Grand and Park counties both saw steady growth from the year before, with increases in 169 and 636 residents, respectively.
Local officials and business leaders reacted to the number with a mix of astonishment and skepticism.
County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier theorized that, assuming the number is accurate, the low net population growth stems from more people moving elsewhere last year due to the high cost of living and real estate. She pointed out that many residents commute to Summit from Park, Grand and other areas, where the real estate market is not nearly as tight.
“The ideal is that people can live where they work and work where they live, and not be commuting because of the cost of real estate,” Stiegelmeier said. “Some of that goes to the short-term rental market causing increased prices, it’s going to push a lot of people out.”
Judi LaPoint, executive director of the Summit Chamber of Commerce, commented last week on how the county’s low unemployment rate has left businesses scrambling for workers. LaPoint said that, assuming the census numbers are true, it’s a bad sign for the county’s labor market and potential for economic growth.
LaPoint also attributed the apparent declining net migration to housing prices, pointing out that the average worker in Summit makes $733 a week and works 1.3 jobs. For some people, the extra work and lower pay is worth it, while for many people, especially those trying to buy a house and start a family, the financial stress and housing dead ends are too much to bear.
LaPoint noted that statistics from the state’s demographer’s office found that the biggest group moving to Summit County is young adults in their 20s, but there has been a sharp decline in migration of people in their 30s — many of whom are looking to settle down and have kids.
“People have to make choices when they come here,” LaPoint said. “Sometimes you make a choice to make less money and live a more natural, holistic lifestyle than working in the Front Range. If you don’t have the basics covered here — like food, shelter, health care — it’s hard not to be stressed. There are many people stretching to make ends meet every single day.”
Dana Cottrell, president of the Summit Association of Realtors, said that, based on all the information she’s been privy to, the census estimate is wrong, and that the population growth has not been that low.
“There is no way we grew by only three people,” Cottrell said. “Everybody would have to be wrong in their projections.”
Cottrell referred to estimates from the state demographer’s office and the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which estimate Summit County will see 8% growth over the next five years.
Cottrell said in her own experience she’s seen that people are still rabidly buying houses in Summit, that housing prices keep climbing and that the demand for affordable housing keeps growing. However, she admitted that many of the new buyers could be second-home or short-term-rental investors who do not wind up living here and drain inventory for full-time residents.
Family and Intercultural Resource Center executive director Tamara Drangstveit, who assists many of Summit’s working families, also shed skepticism to the accuracy of the census population estimate.
She said that these counts can often be wrong because of the nature of Summit as a transient community where people are hard to track, as well as depressed numbers of “uncounted” residents, including immigrants who stay off the radar. Nonetheless, she said, if the number is accurate, the declining growth should not be a surprise given the cost of living.
“We have statistics that basically show that when families have their first kid, there’s a giant migration out of Summit,” Drangstveit said. “If the census numbers are true, it is absolutely legitimate to look at how expensive everything is for residents in Summit County.”
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