Population appears stable enough in Vail, Eagle Valley | PostIndependent.com

Population appears stable enough in Vail, Eagle Valley

Scott N. Miller
Vail Correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – We’ve all heard the stories: The economy’s bad; people are leaving the valley. But are people really leaving?

It’s hard to tell. Some people have left, of course. But families with kids seem to be riding out the economic slump here in the valley.

There’s evidence that some people are leaving. The number of births at Vail Valley Medical Center in 2009 was down more than 100 from 2008. And auto registrations dropped by about 1,100 from 2008 to 2009.

Then there are other indicators.

Megan McGee-Banta, of Catholic Charities, said her office is taking about as many cases as it has in the past, although the types of cases it takes up are different.

“We’re seeing fewer landlord-tenant cases and more cases of people not being paid by employers,” McGee-Banta said. “Maybe some individuals are leaving, but families seem to be staying.”

But there are more kids

But among the drops is perhaps the most significant number – student numbers. The Eagle County School District estimated there could be 200 or so fewer students enrolling at the beginning of the 2009-10 school year. In fact, this school year’s student population is 450 kids larger than the group that started the 2008-09 year.

Some, but not all, of those numbers come from parents taking their kids out of private or charter schools in the valley. But the number of kids enrolled in the schools’ “language learner” programs – children of immigrants who don’t speak fluent English – grew by 250 this year.

Denny Hill created that estimate. He owns Strategic Resources West, a company that does population estimates for school districts all over the state. He’s built a career from taking all kinds of information and creating estimates of how many kids will come through a school districts’ doors in the coming years.

Hill likes to be no more than 1 percent or 2 percent off, on average, and Eagle County School District spokeswoman Brooke Skjonsby said he usually hits his targets.

This year was different.

What happened?

Hill – who also missed his estimates for the schools in Rifle this year – said the country’s widespread economic slump is probably keeping people where they are, at least for now.

When the oil shale experiment of the early 1980s suddenly went bust in 1981, people left the Rifle area in swarms, Hill said. That’s because there were other oil fields elsewhere, and those workers followed the jobs.

Today, just about the entire country is hurting. There aren’t really any places to pack up and head toward for new opportunities, Hill said.

That’s part of the art and science of guessing how many kids will come through a school’s doors every fall.

Hill acknowledged that there may be “more art than science” in creating his estimates. But there’s plenty of science.

Hill uses factors, including past enrollment trends and housing development – including what types of homes are being built.

“We know how many kids each type of unit would generate by type,” Hill said.

The result is something more accurate than even recent census data, at least for school populations, Hill added.

‘This is normal’

While student populations are one indicator of whether people are staying or leaving a school district, getting a picture of an entire population involves other factors, from the number of electric bills to the number of active water taps.

Don Cohen, director of the Economic Council of Eagle County – which tracks data from population to housing to employment – said it looks like most people are staying around, at least for the moment.

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