Northwest Arkansas population growth softens to 2% in 2018, area dips to 27th fastest growing metro

by Jeff Della Rosa (JDellaRosa@nwabj.com) 4,034 views 

Northwest Arkansas was the 27th fastest growing metropolitan statistical area (MSA) in the United States in 2018, decelerating from the 14th fastest in 2017, the 20th in 2016 and 24th in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Between 2010 and 2018, the metro was the 13th fastest growing area in the United States.

The Census Bureau on Thursday (April 18) released new population estimates as of July 1, 2018, for metro areas and counties in the United States. The Midland, Texas, metro area was the fastest growing area, with a 4.3% population increase, and the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metro had the largest population increase, adding 131,767 people.

The population of Northwest Arkansas, or the Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metro, increased 2% to 549,128, between July 1, 2017, and July 1, 2018. The metro added 10,716 people, the 43rd most in the United States, and has grown to become the 102nd most populous metro area, from 104th in 2017.

“I think our population growth is dependent on employment,” said Mervin Jebaraj, director for the Center for Business and Economic Research in the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. “We grew about 2.3% last year. We’re down to 2% this year. A lot of that drop is coming from Benton County and Madison County.”

While the population growth rate has moderated from 2017, the 2018 rate was greater than the 2014 and 2013 rates — 36th and 28th fastest growing, respectively. The 2016 growth rate was 2% as well. And since 2010, the metro area population has risen 18.6%, from 463,202, and was the 13th fastest growing metro between 2010 and 2018. Over the same period, the metro added 85,926 people, the 45th most in the United States.

“It is still pretty strong growth. I know we’re no longer quite 12,000 people a year, but 10,700 people comparatively is still pretty good. So I think it’s just where we are in the cycle per se,” said Jebaraj, adding that he expects the growth to continue to slow over the next few years because of the slower employment growth. The metro was adding between 8,000 and 9,000 jobs annually, but this has declined to between 5,500 and 6,000 jobs per year.

“Northwest Arkansas’ rate of growth is among the top 10% of the nation’s more than 380 MSAs, and our two largest counties are growing faster than every other county in Arkansas. That’s what solid, consistent performance looks like,” said Rob Smith, communications and policy director for the Northwest Arkansas Council. “Many statistics — increasing water consumption, cities’ increasing sales tax revenue, the rising number of vehicles registered in our counties, more students in our schools, and on and on — show Northwest Arkansas growth continues at an impressive rate. Those statistics plus the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau about our region’s steady growth illustrate why it’s so important to keep investing in quality-of-life amenities, housing, highways and other physical infrastructure to ensure that our region is prepared for the growth that’s ahead.”

OTHER ARKANSAS METROS
The population of the Jonesboro metro area rose 1% to 132,532, and similarly to Northwest Arkansas, Jebaraj attributed the rise to job growth. The Jonesboro metro area added 1,374 people, the 188th most in the United States, and has become the 304th largest metro area, up one spot from 2017. Since 2010, the population has increased by 9.5%, from 121,020, and was the 95th fastest-growing metro area between 2010 and 2018. Over the same period, the metro added 11,512 people, the 191st most in the United States.

The population of the Little Rock metro area, which includes North Little Rock and Conway, increased 0.4% to 741,104. The metro area added 3,113 people, the 115th most in the United States, and remains the 78th largest metro area. Since 2010, the population has increased by 5.9% from 699,796, and was the 159th fastest-growing metro area between 2010 and 2018. Over the same period, the metro added 41,308, the 82nd most in the United States.

The population change for the metro, which includes five counties, has been driven by international migration to Pulaski County, comprising 78.7% of the metro’s population; those moving out of the county; and those moving into Saline and Lonoke counties, said Pam Willrodt, senior demographer at the Arkansas Economic Development Institute. Between 2010 and 2018, 11,922 people moved from Pulaski County, while 6,320 moved into the county from outside the United States. Meanwhile, 11,161 people moved into Saline County from either another county or state, and 526 moved into the county from outside the United States. Also, 1,855 people moved into Lonoke County, and 837 moved into the county from outside the United States.

The population of the Fort Smith metro area rose 0.1% to 282,318. The metro area added 328 people, the 254th most in the United States, and has become the 171st largest metro area, down one spot from 2017. Since 2010, the population has risen 0.6% from 280,532, and was the 284th fastest-growing metro area between 2010 and 2018. Over the same period, the metro added 1,786 people, the 276th most in the United States.

COUNTY GROWTH
Of the 75 Arkansas counties, the population increased in 28 counties and fell in 47 counties, Willrodt said.

Benton County was the fastest growing county in Arkansas and added more people than any other county in the state in 2018. The population of Benton County increased by 2.3% to 272,608 people. The county added 6,104 people and remained the second-most populous county in the state. Since 2010, the population has increased by 23.2% from 221,351 and was the 40th fastest growing county in the United States and the fastest growing county in Arkansas between 2010 and 2018. Over the same period, the county added 51,257 people, the most in the state.

Washington County was the second-fastest growing county and added the second-highest number of people than any other county in the state. The population of the county rose 1.8% to 236,961. It added 4,181 people and remained the third-largest county in the state. Since 2010, the population has risen 16.7% from 203,046 and was the second-fastest growing county between 2010 and 2018. Over the same period, the county added 33,915 people, the second most in the state.

Craighead County was the sixth-fastest growing county in the state and added the fourth most people. The population of the county increased 1.4% to 108,558 people. It added 1,521 people and remained the seventh most populous county in the state. Since 2010, the population has increased by 12.6% from 96,443 and was the fourth-fastest growing county between 2010 and 2018. Over the same period, the county added 12,115 people, the fourth-most in the state.

The population of Sebastian County fell 0.1% to 127,753. It decreased by 112 people and remained the fourth largest county in the state. Since 2010, the population has risen 1.6% from 125,761 and was the 19th fastest growing county between 2010 and 2018. Over the same period, the county added 1,992 people, the 11th most in the state.

The population of Pulaski County declined 0.2% to 392,680. It decreased by 936 people and remained the largest county in the state. Since 2010, the population has increased by 2.6% from 382,786 and was the 14th fastest growing county between 2010 and 2018. Over the same period, the county added 9,894 people, the sixth-most in the state.

Jebaraj said the decline is part of a long-term trend in which people have been moving out of Little Rock, which is in Pulaski County, and into surrounding counties.

“The hot topic last year was migration,” Willrodt said. “And to me, that’s kind of the story. Can you get people to move to Arkansas? To me, that’s a lot of realistically what we need for economic growth. Benton, Washington, Saline, Craighead (counties) — they have good numbers of domestic migration coming in, but then, when I look at Pulaski County trying to see what’s going on, international migration was over 6,000 while domestic migration was minus 11,922.”

Between 2010 and 2018 in Benton County, domestic migration, or the people moving into the county from outside the county or state, was 30,471. Over the same period, international migration, or people moving into the county from outside the United States, was 5,754. Over the same period in Washington County, domestic migration was 14,229. International migration was 5,052.

“What’s going on in Pulaski County?” Willrodt said. “It’s good they are having more births than deaths, but the migration is something that I’d be concerned about if I was looking at population totals from a business standpoint.”

The fastest growing U.S. county in 2018 with a population of at least 10,000 was McKenzie County, N.D., with a 7.1% population increase. Between 2010 and 2018, Williams County, N.D., was the fastest growing U.S. county, with a 57.8% population increase.

Willrodt also spoke about the 2020 census, the estimates and that the Census Bureau has become good at producing the estimates.

“Arkansas has over 3 million people; however, it means nothing until the census reflects that number. So getting a good census count is absolutely critical to getting the money into the state to help it thrive. And we’re in the year before census.”

The 2020 census will begin in April 2020, and data from the census is expected to be released in 2021. The metro area and county numbers released in 2020 will be estimates for 2019.

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