SALT LAKE CITY — Two of Utah's urban clusters remained among the fastest-growing in the nation last year, but for very different reasons.
The St. George metro area added about 16 people a day, new census figures show, and many in the new crop are outdoor enthusiasts and service workers, said Pamela Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Institute.
To the north, Provo-Orem took on a daily 43 residents in 2017-18, and the new faces included more than just newborns. A burgeoning high-tech corridor, a growing student population at Utah Valley University and a housing crunch in neighboring Salt Lake County also played a part, Perlich noted.
The two areas have slipped a few spots from a year ago, when St. George was first and Provo eighth, according to census data released late Wednesday.
"The growth is not what you would call boom growth or unmanageable growth. It's a moderate growth," Perlich said. "For the foreseeable future, Utah continues to be a place of economic and educational — and we would argue outdoor recreational — opportunity. And people are voting with their feet and moving here from all over the country and all over the world."
Still, the Beehive State is not without growing pains as communities plan for the stream of newcomers, and not just in St. George and Provo. Rising home costs on the Wasatch Front are also pushing families and others into outlying counties, Perlich said.
Rapid change in red rock country
St. George Mayor Jon Pike said it’s continuously “exciting” to see the St. George area's high ranking, but he also said he didn’t mind “slipping” from the No. 1 spot. Such rapid growth, after all, comes with its fair share of challenges, he said.
“It’s water. It’s transportation. It’s infrastructure. It’s housing,” Pike said. Water availability is perhaps the biggest blockade to Washington County’s boom, the mayor added.
The controversial proposal to build the Lake Powell pipeline currently awaits a decision on the federal level. Though expensive at up to an estimated $1-1.8 billion, Pike said, the pipeline is “still the lowest hanging fruit” in terms of a new water source for St. George.
“We’re not going to permit growth that we can’t support with water, so right now we’re fine. But the Lake Powell pipeline, in my opinion, will be important."
The growing St. George region encompasses all of Washington County, where more than 4 in 5 new faces have moved in from outside the county. The Provo-Orem cluster includes Utah County, where babies are responsible for more than half of growth, and the less populous Juab County to the south.
A healthy commute
Provo Mayor Michelle Kaufusi welcomes the growth in Utah County’s epicenter but said the city must be smart in its planning as it becomes the “downtown” of Utah County.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of it. We don’t want to be caught unprepared, and at this point I can honestly say we are going to be fine as long as we keep up with it and we project it 50 years out,” she said.
An influx of more daytime visitors is putting its own unique strain on transit and roads — an issue Provo and Utah County leaders are highly focused on. That and the continued pressure of the housing market booming in areas including Lehi and Vineyard, close neighbors to Provo and Orem. Meanwhile, Silicon Slopes continues to draw more businesses and people — as do Brigham Young University and Utah Valley University.
Provo is rapidly becoming more and more what Salt Lake City is to Salt Lake County — but with its own culture and business-friendly atmosphere, Kaufusi said.
An unexpected move
A 2019 report from Perlich's colleagues found that a single-family home in Salt Lake County sold for $355,000 in 2018, up 9 percent from a year earlier. It's part of the reason that so-called ring counties just off of northern Utah's urban corridor, such as Tooele and Wasatch, are expanding, Perlich said.
Noelle Hoyne, a 26-year-old administrative assistant at a Salt Lake shipping company, is among those straying from the I-15 corridor in search of a better deal. She and her husband began looking for houses in the south end of Salt Lake County in 2016, but decided to stay with family and save up for another year. When they began searching again, she said, pricetags on homes in the same area had climbed from $220,000 up to $260,000.
A realtor urged them to consider Tooele County's Stansbury Park. So they visited and quickly realized they could build their own home for roughly the same cost of an existing one in West Jordan.
"I was pretty surprised," Hoyne recalled. "When I grew up in Southern California, in my mind, a new house meant you had a lot of money, and it meant you were on the up and up."
They moved into the new three-bedroom house in July, where they have neighbors over for homemade ice cream and plan to grow their family. Crews are building still more homes in their neighborhood, Hoyne said, plus another new community across the way. She and her husband now commute to the Salt Lake Valley for work, passing the Great Salt Lake on the way.
"Honestly, we don't mind it," Hoyne said. "It's a pretty drive."
A difficult transition
Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne likened the rapid growth in his county to a workout.
“To build up muscle, you’re going to have some pain,” he said — and that’s what Tooele County commissioners are seeing as they face the brunt of angry neighborhoods protesting against the rural area’s changing landscape. “We’re getting an earful.”
He has seen firsthand what he calls the “cognitive dissonance” among residents of counties on the fringes of the Wasatch Front as they see more and more construction crews at work.
Tooele County residents love their quality of life — their open space, farms, open country roads — and yet they also like to have big families, he said. At the same time, they want to have good-paying jobs, but they don’t want housing development changing the character of their neighborhoods.
“They’re the head,” Milne said of the Wasatch Front “and we’re the shoulders. The counties right here, we’re all facing some of these growth pressures.”
A symptom of those pressures — as seen in other areas in Salt Lake County where high density creeps — are more and more voter referendums challenging high-density developments, including a rezone for Kennecott Utah Copper’s proposed Adobe Rock Ranch. Critics of the Skywalk development in Erda also are challenging that development in court.
The broader picture
The data released Wednesday largely confirm the trends that Perlich's team of demographers have traced in recent years. Beyond that, they reveal where Utah fits in the national picture, she said.
For example, in parts of the U.S. South and West, other metro areas are growing faster than St. George and Provo-Orem.
The West Texas oil town of Midland, which ticked up 4.3 percent in the one-year period, clinched the No. 1 spot this year. Runner-up Myrtle Beach and surrounding towns on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina swelled 3.8 percent as low construction prices and undeveloped land has drawn those seeking to build retirement homes.
Even though some Utah communities remain atop the fastest expanding nationally, they are far from the most populous in the U.S. The area around Texas' Dallas Fort Worth and Arlington reached 7 million as of 2018, more than twice the Beehive State's total population.22 comments on this story
• The data show that two smaller Utah cities, Heber and Cedar City, also made the top four nationally among micro areas — those with a concentrated population of more than 10,000 and less than 50,000.
• The population of Daggett County, covered by a swath of national forest in Utah's northeastern corner, dipped 4.1 percent, to a population of 980, after the county's embattled jail shuttered in 2017.
• Overall, Utah added another 57,987 people — an uptick of 1.87 percent — to a total population of 3.16 million, the estimates show. Most of the newcomers arrived in Utah County, followed by Salt Lake County.