County population, jobs forecast met with skepticism
Population growth predictions for Garfield County have been revised downward significantly since the pre-recession boom years, when the county was forecast to grow to nearly 150,000 residents by the year 2040.
Even so, new forecasts from the Colorado Demographer’s Office suggest the county will still grow over the next 25 years from about 60,000 residents now to a population of around 108,000, according to projections presented to county officials Tuesday by State Demographer Elizabeth Garner.
The number of jobs in Garfield County is also expected to grow from around 33,000 currently to more than 63,000, Garner said in her yearly update to the county commissioners.
That number is also down from a 2008 forecast of more than 71,000 jobs by 2040, she said.
Still, commissioners and others who were on hand for the presentation observed that the jobs number in particular, and the population forecast in general, seem high given several factors that could inhibit growth, from the slowdown in oil and gas activity to the higher cost of living and lack of affordable housing in Garfield County.
“I’m glad to see they have reduced the numbers from the previous projections, but I still think it’s too high given the slowdown in the economy and other issues,” said Randi Lowenthal, one of several members of the new Garfield County Economic Development Partners group who attended the meeting.
On the population front, smaller growth is easier to plan and prepare for than the continued boom-level growth that was once predicted, she said.
County Commission Chairman John Martin said he wouldn’t be surprised if the number of jobs actually decreases in coming years, even as the population increases.
“I’m being a pessimist, I guess,” he said. But a five-year projected increase to more than 40,000 jobs seems overly optimistic, Martin and others said.
Garner said the rapid growth that Colorado, including Garfield and other energy producing counties, was seeing before the recession was “unsustainable.”
DIFFICULT TO PLAN
But there’s a danger to underforecasting population increases, especially when the trend is toward an aging population that will likely require more support services, she said.
“I do get concerned about places like Garfield County, where it could be 150,000 people, or it could just as easily be 90,000, and then how do you plan for that?” Garner said.
The population and economic-related forecasts included in her report were based on 2013 data, with some updates from 2014. Trends related to births versus deaths, net migration into the county, jobs growth, and labor demand versus supply within the population were factored into the growth forecasts.
Colorado as a whole is expected to grow from a current population of just over 5 million people to around 7.8 million by 2040.
Garfield County can expect to surpass 80,000 people somewhere between 2025 and 2030, and top 100,000 people between 2035 and 2040, according to the growth forecast.
Because a large percentage of that growth is expected to be retirees, including those moving into the county, the available labor force is expected to grow from about only 35,355 currently to about 50,000 by 2030 and more than 60,000 by 2040.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky offered that the projected growth rate may not be that far off. He noted that the county grew from about 25,000 people 30 years ago to 60,000 today; a much greater rate of growth than the latest 25-year forecast.
Growth in the health-care and education sectors related to the expansion of Valley View and Grand River hospitals and expanded degree programs through Colorado Mountain College could support the predictions, Jankovsky said.
HOUSING COST PRESSURE
However, the limiting considerations are the continued low price of natural gas and other factors that have resulted in the slowdown in oil and gas activity, as well as housing prices and the generally higher cost of living, especially on the eastern end of the county, he said.
“I think we will continue to see the squeeze in the cost of housing, especially in Glenwood Springs and Carbondale,” Jankovsky said.
Indeed, the median home value in Garfield County is about double what it is in other Western Slope counties, according to statistics contained in Garner’s report. And about half of the households in the county are spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing, either through rent or mortgage payments, she said.
On the economic recovery front, 2013 data show that Garfield County lags behind much of the state in terms of employment levels compared with pre-recession peaks.
Overall, the county has recovered to about 90 percent of where it was in terms of total jobs in 2008, while some Front Range counties, including Denver, Boulder, Jefferson, Douglas, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Adams, Weld and Larimer counties, have recovered to 100 percent or greater in some cases.
Looking at it by sector, construction jobs in Garfield County have recovered to only 61 percent of the pre-recession peak, while oil and gas and other mining jobs have recovered to about 74 percent.
Employment related to manufacturing, information, warehousing, retail trade, finance and professional services range from 78 percent to 89 percent of their pre-recession peak.
The real estate, lodging and food sectors are doing a little better, at between 91 percent and 96 percent recovery.
Several employment sectors in Garfield County are at 100 percent recovery or greater, including waste services, utilities, arts, health services, corporate management, education, agriculture and government jobs, according to the report.
The full “Transitions: Economic and Demographic Trends for Garfield County” report will be posted soon to the county’s website at http://www.garfield-county.com.
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