The population of Payson and Star Valley has declined by 2,000 to 4,000 people from its peak, according to U.S. Census figures.
The figures suggest a 16-percent decline in the population of the three local zip codes since the boom year of 2007. Census figures indicate the population peaked at an estimated 23,500 in 2007, but dropped to an estimated 19,700 in 2010.
The census figures confirm a trend evident in other measures, including dwindling town sales tax, the rising number of vacant homes and the decline in enrollment in the Payson School District.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans said the decline underlies most of the town’s financial woes in the past three years and has hit the town’s working middle class especially hard.
“That middle part of the workforce is where we’ve gotten hit. And that has exacerbated the impact on the middle class,” said Evans.
The bedrock retirement sector has weathered the downturn better than most other segments of the community, he noted.
Moreover, the lowest-income groups have relied on various public programs, piecemeal work and family support to eke out a living.
However, middle income full-time residents who lost jobs as a result of the collapse of construction and the struggles of the tourist economy have increasingly sought work elsewhere, accounting for the bulk of the population decline, said Evans.
The latest census figures highlight the challenges facing the state’s rural areas, where population growth even before the downturn had lagged far behind the boom times in Maricopa and Pima counties, two of the fastest-growing regions in the country between 2000 and 2010. While the state’s population jumped 24 percent in that decade, Gila County’s rose just 4.4 percent.
Evans said the region’s swoon in the recession convinced many community leaders to pursue a more balanced local economy, anchored by things like an ASU Campus and spinoffs like a solar power system, a solar cell chip assembly plant, a convention hotel and a covered event center that could attract trade shows and special events year round.
He said the key is in attracting more skilled, higher-salaried workers and year-round employment.
“Even with a high unemployment rate, employers are reporting problems finding employable workers. We’re facing the problem of a lot of people finding that their job no longer exists. So what do you do next if you don’t have the basic skills?”
Ironically, Evans cites that sharp population decline in predicting that residents won’t see much immediate change in traffic or other problems even if the town finally strikes a deal with Arizona State University to build a four-year campus here.
“I don’t see anything on the horizon that would immediately bring 2,000 people to town. We’ve been focusing on small employers — with less than 150 employees.”
He said ASU would likely bring several hundred jobs to town and the proposed 500-room convention hotel would generate another flush of new jobs.
However, he said new jobs do not produce as much population growth as they have in the past due to the change in average household sizes and the increase in the number of people living alone and putting off having families. Traditionally, economic planners assume that one new job will add 2.8 people to the population. In recent years, one job produces a population increase closer to 1.25 people.
“So even if we add 1,000 jobs and 1,500 population every year, it takes us three years to get back to where we were in 2007,” said Evans.
“So it’ll be at least that long before we can get back to screaming and yelling about whether growth is going to destroy the town.”
He added that the best way to protect the town from the “vulgarities” of economic downturns and population crashes lies in working persistently to create a varied range of businesses in town.
“We need diversified growth based on a sound economy,” he said.
The 2010 Census Bureau has released detailed statistics on the state and county level, but not yet on a city-by-city basis.
The figures show some intriguing differences between the people of Gila County and the rest of the state. Rim Country accounts for just over half of the 53,597 people who live in Gila County.
For instance, 22 percent of the residents of Gila County are older than 65 compared to 13 percent statewide. On the other hand, 30 percent of Gila County residents are 18 or younger, compared to 34 percent of the state’s population.
Gila County residents have less money on the average than the average Arizona resident. Median household income stands at $37,000 compared to $49,000 statewide. About 21 percent of Gila County residents live in poverty, compared to 16 percent of residents statewide.
On the other hand, more Gila County residents own their own homes. The home ownership rate stands at 78 percent in Gila County, compared to 68 percent statewide.
However, the median home value here stands at $151,000 compared to $218,000 statewide. Only 5 percent of Gila County residents live in apartments or other “multi-unit” homes compared to 21 percent of the population statewide.
About 87 percent of the residents live in the same house as they did a year ago, compared to 79 percent of the statewide population.
Only 15 percent of Gila County residents have a college degree or better, compared to 26 percent of the statewide population.
Only 4 percent of Gila County residents were born in another country compared to 15 percent of the state population. Hispanics account for 18 percent of the Gila County population and 30 percent of the statewide population. On the other hand, Native Americans comprise 15 percent of the Gila County population and just 5 percent of the statewide population.