Forecast: Valley population set to grow
EAGLE COUNTY — Those who live in the Vail Valley know that Eagle County is a great place to live. According to the State Demographer’s office, many others will be discovering that too in coming years — about 41,000 people by 2040 to be exact.
According to the state’s forecast, which takes into account current population trends and the expected growth of the area’s key industries, Eagle County ranks as the seventh fastest growing county in the state. (Keep in mind, that’s the fastest growing in percentage change, not in population count.)
In July, the state’s estimated population for Eagle County was 53,303. It is expected to increase by 41,000 over the next 25 years.
During the years of the recession, Eagle County’s population actually dipped through 2012, but it has been steadily ticking upward over the last few years. The state hasn’t released its official 2015 population totals by county, but state demographer Elizabeth Garner said that 2015 is on track to be Eagle County’s fastest growing year since 2006.
“I think the Western Slope and mountain towns are poised for more growth,” she said. “The population seems to lag behind the economy. As the economy rebounds as we’ve seen it do, people will start to get their savings back, they’ll feel more comfortable and want to come vacation again.”
Part of a growing Colorado
Eagle County’s expected growth is in line with what the rest of the state is also experiencing. As recently reported by Rocky Mountain PBS, about 2.3 million new residents are expected to move to Colorado by 2040, bringing the state population to 7.8 million. About half of that 2.3 million is expected to be in Denver.
Other fastest growing counties included everything from small counties like Elbert and Park counties that are feeling pressure from Denver’s growth, to the vast Weld County, to the tiny mountain community of San Miguel County.
This certainly would not be the first time in Eagle County’s history that the area has seen rapid growth. Between 1980 and 2000, Eagle County swelled by about 30,000 people.
“Eagle County is an interesting place — it definitely had tremendous growth through the ’80s and ’90s. It grew more slowly through 2009, then there was even a small decline in 2010-2011. It increased in 2011-2012, and there was an even bigger jump in 2012-2014. We expect a continued pickup for 2014-2015,” Garner said.
The county’s population forecast is based on job growth, meaning that forecasters think the area’s economy will continue to thrive.
“We look at the industries in Eagle County and how they’re changing and growing in U.S. and in the state, and what share Eagle is going to take of that,” said Garner. “Job growth is people growth. That’s where our population forecast comes in.”
Eagle County Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry said those numbers are interesting, but would depend on the region’s existing constraints.
“Our constraints here are housing and transportation, so I’m going to be very curious if we really see that kind of growth that the math would tell us is coming,” she said, adding that some existing residents and leaders don’t want to see a bigger Eagle County.
“That’s where the master planning process becomes some important because I think there would be some pushback,” she said. “Most people don’t want high density and like having open space. This would be a call to action for us to figure out, ‘What do we really want to look like?’ That’s where we as elected officials come in. I think we can manage this kind of growth and also keep the qualities we think are important.”
Looking at the past few years, things are certainly humming along for Eagle County. According to a recent report by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, unemployment in Eagle County continues to be low and is well and below the national average of 5 percent.
The report paints an economic snapshot of Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Pitkin and Summit counties this fall as compared to last fall. Eagle County showed a 6 percent increase in labor force from last year, and strong job growth in construction and agriculture.
During the past three years, the region (all five counties combined), has gained 4,826 jobs, which is a 7.1 percent increase.
“In our region we’re still seeing more growth than the state as a whole,” said Rachel Lunney, director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments Economic Development District. “It’s healthy growth.”
Lunney said she thinks the kind of growth the state is projecting is possible, but like Henry-Chandler, she thinks some of the region’s perennial traits could also serve to curb that fast growth. While higher than most surrounding counties, Eagle County’s average income is $42,588, which lags well behind the state average of $51,428. Pair that with the high cost and low inventory of housing and people might look elsewhere to resettle.
“It is a very desirable place to live, but the housing situation, unless it changes, is going to constrain that,” she said. “In my opinion, the impression may become that there is nowhere to live, so don’t even bother trying to come and be a ski bum and find a job. I think that might start to deter people.”
Assistant Editor Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2927 or at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @mwongvail.