The number of people living in metro St. Louis barely budged last year, save for the one corner of the region that’s familiar with faster growth.
The region’s population edged up less than one-tenth of one percent — roughly 2,400 people — in 2012, according to new numbers out today. That rate is far slower than the 0.75 percent growth rate of the nation as a whole and a bit slower than the St. Louis region grew in 2011.
The figures are just estimates and subject to revision. Indeed, last year’s number was revised after the federal Office of Management and Budget excised Washington County, Mo., from its official definition of the St. Louis metropolitan area.
But — coupled with recent data pointing up weak job growth and a slower-than-average economy — they paint a picture of a region still trying to find its footing in the wake of the recession.
Many of the fastest-growing metro areas, according to the census, were in the nation’s energy belt, with Midland, Texas, leading the pack at 4.6 percent. Of the 10 fastest-growing regions, three were in Texas and one each in Wyoming and Kansas. Among the nation’s 25 biggest regions, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio saw the biggest percentage gains. Of those same 25 metro areas, only Pittsburgh grew more slowly than St. Louis.
“There are probably many factors fueling this growth on the prairie, but no doubt the energy boom is playing a role,” said Thomas Mesenbourg, a senior adviser to the Census Bureau, who pointed out that half of all the energy companies formed last year were formed in Texas and North Dakota.
The growth, both of people and economic activity, in the St. Louis area has been decidedly cooler. The region’s $130 billion economy grew just 1.2 percent in 2011, according to recent federal data, and job numbers were flat during much of 2012 until a pickup in the last few months of the year — after the census made its population estimate in July.
“There’s big economic shifts taking place in the country, and St. Louis is no longer home to so many big companies,” said Onésimo Sandoval, a sociology professor at St. Louis University who studies demographics. “It doesn’t have the economic magnets, which means it’s not going to get the first look from migrants.”
Within the region, an old pattern continued: fast growth in the western outer suburbs, while the center and Metro East were stagnant.
No place grew more quickly last year than St. Charles County, which expanded 1 percent to bring its population north of 368,000. Lincoln and Warren counties also grew more quickly than the region as a whole.
But even 1 percent isn’t the kind of growth St. Charles is used to, notes Greg Prestemon, president of the Economic Development Council of St. Charles County. He remembers the days in the early and mid-2000s when 3 percent a year was the norm.
“I don’t think a 1 percent growth rate is something to crow about,” Prestemon said. “Compared to other parts of the U.S., that’s not a big deal.”
Still, he acknowledged, the housing market’s recovery has helped St. Charles County get back some of its mojo. Whereas half-empty subdivisions were a common sight across county the last few years, they’re starting to get filled in. The 1,497 building permits issued in St. Charles County last year were the most since 2007 and amounted for just under half of all the permits issued on the Missouri side of the river, according to data from the Home Builders Association of St. Louis.
“We’re fortunate out here to still have a good home-building industry,” Prestemon said.
Closer in, there was less movement. St. Louis County ticked back up over the symbolically important 1 million mark but added only about 1,100 people, the census said. St. Louis city notched another year in its decades of population decline but lost fewer than 400 people.
“It’s just a one-year snapshot,” said Don Roe, the city’s planning director. “But basically it says we’re in a stable situation.”
Across the Mississippi, the trajectory was more downward. Every county in the Metro East save one — Monroe County — saw population decline, and two fell as quickly as St. Charles County grew.
Regardless of where it’s happening, the slow growth is a regionwide issue, and regional leaders have grown increasingly vocal about the need to speed it up. They’re also hoping to tap a group of people who haven’t found their way here much in recent years: immigrants.
A group of business leaders traveled to Washington last month to lobby for immigration reform, in the hopes of drawing more newcomers to St. Louis. And although he wasn’t available for an interview Wednesday, St. Louis Regional Chamber President Joe Reagan was blunt in his comments that day as to why:
“If you look at our population growth, it looks like a bad EKG,” he said.
Attempting to attract immigrants is a smart idea for St. Louis, Sandoval said. Without them, it’s not clear where St. Louis’ population growth might come from.
While a few regions — such as Pittsburgh and Boston — have thrived in recent years despite slow or no growth, it’s hard to create more jobs with fewer people. And in the long run, he said, demographics say a lot about a region’s destiny.
“We’re a consumer-based economy. If you have a drop in consumers, you’re going to have fewer people buying things, less economic activity, fewer jobs,” he said. “Where the next 100 million Americans wind up really matters.”