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Census Bureau population estimates shine light on challenges facing Midwestern cities

May 31st, 2018

The Journal Gazette

In new U.S. Census estimates, Indianapolis was knocked down a notch, from the 15th-most-populous city to the 16th.

Big deal, you say. Indianapolis is still the urban success story it was before those 2017 figures were released recently, a regional business and entertainment center, a national sports venue – even a contender in the competition for a second Amazon hub.

But other new Census data offer reminders that Indianapolis' little slip is part of a larger Midwest challenge.

First, the good news. The latest census estimates for the City of Fort Wayne are encouraging. As of July 1, 2017, Fort Wayne had 265,904 people. That's more than 1,000 additional residents compared to 2016, a growth rate of just more than three-quarters of a percent – slightly higher than the 0.72 percentage nationally. Since 2010, Fort Wayne's population has grown by 4.64 percent; nationally, it was 5.3 percent. Indianapolis' population actually grew during the past year, by almost a percentage point, to 863,002. But Fort Worth, Texas, grew slightly faster to supplant Indianapolis as the 15th-largest city.

With a population of 6,666,818, Indiana as a whole has grown just 2.72 percent since 2010. Between 2016 and 2017, the state gained fewer than 33,000 residents – just less than a half-percentage point increase over the previous year.

Now that Fort Worth has leapfrogged Indianapolis, Texas has five of the nation's 15 most populous cities. (The others are Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio.) Only two Midwestern cities – Chicago and Columbus, Ohio – are among the top 15.

Other census data released last week show 14 of America's 15 fastest-growing cities of 50,000 or more are located in the South or West. Columbus, Ohio, is number eight.

Smaller Midwestern communities, census data would suggest, are in the biggest trouble. Since 2010, towns with populations of 5,000 or fewer people actually lost 1.4 percent of their population, while small towns in the West grew by 7.8 percent. Larger Midwestern cities are growing, but less than half as fast as cities in the South and West.

“It's generally a sign of economic growth,” said Rachel Blakeman, director of the Community Research Institute at Purdue Fort Wayne. “Positive population growth generally shows a strong, healthy job market and economy.” Blakeman said slower growth in northeast Indiana and the Midwest generally has not been because of a lower birth rate but because “more people are choosing to leave than to move in ... the South is doing really well at attracting people. People are making a decision to live there,” she said. “The flip side is the Midwest is having an exodus.”

“The Road to One Million” campaign by Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and Greater Fort Wayne is an effort to counter those trends by improving the quality of life in this area in order to attract cutting-edge businesses and valuable new workers. The area's openness to immigration has played an important role in the effort, as well.

The latest census numbers are a reminder that such efforts are vital.