Growth has slowed for rural areas in Southwest Washington

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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The Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area grew by 1.6 percent between 2010 and 2011 as surrounding rural counties showed slower growth, possibly a sign of the nation’s increasing urbanization during and after the Great Recession, according to 2011 population estimates by the Census Bureau.

Clark County -- Washington’s fifth-largest county but also part of Portland’s metro area -- grew 1.9 percent from 425,363 to an estimated 433,418 between April 2010 and July 2011, slightly more than the rest of the Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro population center as a whole.

Meanwhile, in line with national trends, rural and suburban counties in Southwest Washington showed slower growth.

Scott Bailey, regional labor economist with the Washington Employment Security Department, encouraged caution in drawing any long-range conclusions about the statistics.

“I’m not going to get too excited about a year’s worth of data, especially in these extraordinary times,” Bailey said. “There certainly has been a sharp reversal of the decades-old trend of young families moving to the suburbs. … Whether that keeps up ‘permanently,’ or whether we revert back to the diaspora once job and income growth resumes, will be interesting to see.”

Census Bureau estimates showed less than 1 percent growth in all of Southwest Washington’s rural counties.

Skamania County, 34th largest, increased by 0.5 percent from 11,066 to 11,137. Wahkiakum County, 38th largest, grew by 0.3 percent, and Cowlitz County, 12th largest, stayed about the same with growth of less than 0.1 percent from 102,410 to 102,478.

Bailey said there are striking inconsistencies between the Census Bureau’s estimates and that of the state Office of Fiscal Management. For example, the state agency estimated growth of 0.6 percent in Clark County for 2011, whereas the Census Bureau estimated 1.9 percent. It’s unclear why the numbers are different.

Meanwhile, the Tri-Cities -- Pasco, Kennewick and Richland -- was the fastest growing among the nation’s 366 metro areas. The population there grew by 4.3 percent, from 253,340 to 264,133.

The area has ranked as one of the fastest-growing in the state for several years. Its ranking stems from employment opportunities in manufacturing, health care and hospitality, said Carl Adrian, president of Tri-City Development Council. Tri-Cities was the recipient of $2 billion in federal stimulus money to clean up the Hanford nuclear site north of Richland, but most of the jobs for that were filled before April 2010, Adrian said.