The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 27, 2016 5:12 am

Population growth slower than expected

Ron Shawgo | The Journal Gazette

The Road to One Million just got a little longer.

The state is growing. Northeast Indiana is growing. Just not as fast as officials would like. The most recent census population estimates show moderate growth, with the regional rate slightly outpacing the state.

The 21,800 residents Indiana added in 2015 is the state’s second smallest one-year gain since 1989, Matt Kinghorn, an economic analyst in Bloomington for the Indiana Business Research Center, said in an email response. Many other states also had similar sluggish growth.

In northeast Indiana, officials want to reach the 1 million regional milestone in 15 years by boosting jobs and attracting young talent in the 11-county area. They hope for yearly population growth of 2.1 percent as the Northeast Indiana’s Regional Cities Initiative funds a range of quality-of-life projects with a $42 million state grant.

But with those projects still on paper, the rate stayed at a more moderate 0.5 percent last year, according to census figures. So, while the Road to One Million began in August with a projected 2015 population of 789,000, estimates show it’s about 13,000 less than that number.

The projection was a baseline used when census estimates weren’t available, said Ellen Cutter, director of the Community Research Institute at IPFW.

So, unless the estimates are off, northeast Indiana needs to add about 224,000 people – more than the population of each Indiana county but five – to reach the million mark.

Yet, with a historic growth rate for the region of about 0.7 percent, "It would appear we are slowing," Cutter said.

"We’ve got some momentum in our urban core, but like many of the smaller communities around the state our regional counties have a real challenge in terms of population growth," she said.

The 2.1 percent yearly growth rate is an "aspirational goal" based on cities that overcame similar challenges, such as Des Moines, Iowa, Cutter said. Northeast Indiana has not achieved that yearly rate dating to at least 1980, she said. The largest was 1.5 percent in the mid-1980s, she added, noting that a 2 percent rate in 2000 was likely an anomaly.

Many states recorded slow one-year growth last year, Kinghorn said. North Dakota, at 2.3 percent, was the only one above 2 percent. Indiana grew 0.3 percent, which outpaced neighboring states.

Only two Indiana counties, both near Indianapolis, had yearly growth above 2 percent.

"Indiana’s growth was a bit lower than I would have expected," Kinghorn said.

Indiana had a net in-migration of residents in 2013 and 2014 – more people moved in than moved out. With the state economy improving, Kinghorn said he expected the net inflow to continue in 2015. Instead, more people moved out than moved in. Growth is being driven by a natural increase of more births than deaths.

Indiana’s population grew by an average of more than 40,000 residents per year between 2000 and 2010, Kinghorn said. But the average annual mark was down to 26,000 per year between 2011 and 2015.

"Over the last couple of years I’ve expected to see the start of Indiana’s population growth rebound," he said in an email. "But instead sluggish growth has become the norm."

Many states are seeing slower growth because fewer people are moving around and birth rates are lower, he said.

Those trends date to the start of the Great Recession. Many young adults, a key group, are delaying some of life’s big milestones like buying a first home and starting a family, Kinghorn added. 

Nine of the 11 northeast Indiana counties had more people move out than move in last year, according to the census estimates. Cutter ties the loss of residents to the inability to retain or attract talented people who have the "means and mobility to move to other markets."

Between 2010 and 2015, northeast Indiana had a net migration loss of about 4,000 people. Like the state overall, growth is being driven by more births than deaths.

Economic development, domestic migration and quality of place are issues addressed in the Road to One Million plan. To reach the goal, Cutter sees the 2.1 percent yearly growth rate as viable.

"If other communities have done it," she said, "why not Fort Wayne?"

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