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Census: Western Pa. population down, but outlook up

| Thursday, March 10, 2011

Census figures released Wednesday show that Western Pennsylvania lost population over the past decade, but that doesn't necessarily mean people still are leaving the region, a statistics expert said.

"A lot of the population lost in the region and in (Allegheny) county was in the early part of the decade," said Chris Briem, a regional economist with the University of Pittsburgh.

Recent population estimates show Western Pennsylvania and the county gaining population, but those apparent gains have not yet offset earlier losses, he said.

The Census Bureau released the first set of detailed data for Pennsylvania from the 2010 census. It has released such data for 30 states. The numbers include total population, population by race and Hispanic origin and total housing units.

The main purpose of the release is to allow the General Assembly to start redrawing the state's congressional and legislative districts, but it also provides a glimpse at how the area has changed in the past 10 years.

Pennsylvania's eastern and central counties showed the biggest population gains during the past decade. Philadelphia posted its first gain in 60 years -- a 0.6 percent increase in its 1.5 million people. Allentown and Reading recorded higher growth rates. Western counties generally lost residents.

The number of Pennsylvania residents increased 3.4 percent to just over 12.7 million. Still, the state will lose one of its 19 congressional seats because of the demographic changes.

The overall population loss in Western Pennsylvania reflects a trend that started with the collapse of the local steel industry 30 years ago, Briem said. A large part of that generation's younger adults fled the area in search of jobs.

"They took with them their families and their future families," Briem said.

The region "aged" in a relatively short time, and turning that trend around by attracting young adults and families is a gradual process. The recent recession helped because the Pittsburgh area suffered less than many surrounding areas, and that helped bring people here, he said.

Kevin Evanto, spokesman for Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, said the Census Bureau estimates that Allegheny County gained about 850 people in 2009 and another 4,000 in 2010.

"We believe our population losses have bottomed out," he said. "After decades of losing population, we are starting to experience a small increase. It's our belief that we've turned the corner and hope to continue to experience growth."

The population increase during the past two years comes from migration rather than births, Evanto said.

Yesterday's data show population increases in Butler and Washington counties.

While the picture of the region's still losing population may be out-of-date, Briem said, figures showing that Pittsburgh lost 8.6 percent of its population are probably close to reality.

"There's nothing to say that people still aren't moving out of the city proper," he said.

Briem's preliminary analysis of city population by neighborhood can be found online at .

Many center cities in metropolitan areas are experiencing an exodus, and Pittsburgh's share of its metro area is one of the smallest shares among major cities, Briem said. Its relatively small size makes it easy for people to live in the suburbs and commute to work in the city, he said.

"You can have all the benefits of living in the city without living in the city," Briem said.

Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, said the statistics do not reflect demographic changes that the city has been experiencing for the past several years.

"For years we heard about the brain drain of young people coming to Pittsburgh to study and then leaving right after graduation," Doven said. "Now we are seeing more of the young people who come here for school staying after graduation to build their career and start a family, which is a very positive trend for the city."

An analysis of communities showed that Aleppo experienced the highest percent increase in population among municipalities that had at least 500 people in 2000. Donegal Borough in Westmoreland County had the biggest percent loss.

Sarah Harkcom, president of Donegal council, said she knew the borough lost people, but she was surprised to learn it posted a 27.3 percent drop. A town as small as Donegal would have a hard time pursuing economic development projects that could help keep people from leaving or attract new residents, she said.

"This is a very nice little town with friendly people," she said. "And we've had some young families move in during the past few years, but unfortunately most people have to travel outside the borough for work."

Gwen Patterson, Aleppo's manager, said much of the township's 84.4 percent increase has come from construction of the Masonic Village at Sewickley, a continuing care retirement community.

The retirement community, operated by a nonprofit organization, has not produced a financial boon because it does not pay property taxes, but it also has not strained the municipality's resources, she said.

"They make a payment in lieu of taxes to us that has been negotiated over the years, and it is a very well-run operation," Patterson said.

Staff writer Tony LaRussa also contributed to this report.

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