If people vote with their feet, new numbers from the U.S. Census show they like the far suburbs of Phoenix a lot — and are not really keen on large swaths of much of the rest of Arizona.
East Valley locales of Gilbert (third), Queen Creek (sixth) Chandler (eighth) ranked in the top 10 for statewide year-over-year population growth, while Tempe ranked 14th and Mesa 20th.
Buckeye led the state with a year-over-year population increase of 4.1 percent between 2011 and 2012. That figure for the rapidly sprawling community 30 miles west of downtown Phoenix was good enough to get it ranked ninth fastest growing in the nation.
Nearby Goodyear took the No. 2 slot in the state at 3.4 percent, with Gilbert also at 3.4 percent, Queen Creek at 2.7 percent, Chandler at 2.5 percent, Tempe at 1.9 percent and Mesa at 1.7 percent.
At the other extreme, many small towns found a net outflow of residents. And the state’s southern and western tiers were particularly hard it.
Five of the cities at the bottom of the list are in Cochise County, with Tombstone and Huachuca City each losing about 1.8 percent of their already small population.
Population in the county’s unincorporated area also dropped. And even communities that did not dip into negative numbers lagged, with Sierra Vista managing to eke out just a half percentage point growth in residents.
That was better than Tucson which the Census Bureau says added just 1,126 residents over the year, or 0.2 percent. While the far suburban communities of Marana and Sahuarita grew faster — 2.3 percent and 1.9 percent respectively — there was little indication of the same kind of surge in the unincorporated areas of the county where population grew at just 0.6 percent.
Parker lost the most residents, percentage-wise, of any community in the state with a 3.9 percent population drop.
But the pattern played out all along the Colorado River, with the Census Bureau saying Yuma also lost population as did Bullhead City, with no growth in Lake Havasu City and only a 0.2 percent growth in Kingman.
The new numbers show something else: While people continue to pile into the Phoenix area, they may not be willing to drive as far as they once were to find cheaper housing.
During the last decade, the city of Maricopa boomed from just a handful of homes to more than 43,000. But it managed to add just 500 new residents in the last year. And Florence, which also saw a 50 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2010, actually lost population between 2011 and 2012.
But economist Tom Rex with the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University specifically questioned losses logged for Yuma and Florence. He said that may be a function of an overestimate between 2010 and 2011, with the new numbers simply making up for that.
Overall, Marshall Vest, an economist with the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, said the population growth patterns are no real surprise: They mirror where jobs are being created.
That presents an interesting problem for the rest of the state.
“It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg question of what comes first: population or employment,” Vest said.
“Companies are going to locate where there’s an available and skilled labor force,” he explained.
“And people, likewise, are going to migrate to where the jobs are,” Vest continued. “It’s a dynamic there that feeds on itself.”
Even with that, Vest foresees brighter times, particularly for parts of Southern Arizona.
“I think the economy here in Tucson is beginning to accelerate,” he said, saying the sluggish year-over-year growth needs to be put in perspective.
“The Phoenix economy dived deeper” than the rest of the state, Vest said. “And so it’s coming up a little more rapidly.”
Rex agreed population growth rates around the state will even off — but not necessarily because of improvements elsewhere.
“At some point the Phoenix area will get so large the negatives will outweigh the positives,” he said.