Population growth rate takes a tumble

By Scott Rasmussen
Islands Sounder


San Juan Island, WA - The stampede has slowed to a crawl.

Not only are fewer people moving to the islands, but the pace of new arrivals has plummeted from the rising tide of the 1990s. In addition, according to school enrollment figures, fewer new residents are coming with children in tow.

Despite the downturn, the local rate of growth remains slightly ahead of the state mark overall, which at 0.94 percent this year hit a 20-year low, according to estimates released last week by the state Office of Financial Management. The OFM estimates 14,800 people now make their home in San Juan County following an increase in population of 1.37 percent this year.

From 1990 to 2000, San Juan was the second fastest growing county in the state with a 40 percent increase in population, according to Census 2000. It trailed only Clark County, home to Vancouver, Wash., which grew by 45 percent.

The state’s shrinking growth-rate statewide underscores the recent national and regional recession, said Theresa Lowe, chief demographer and author of the OFM report. The demise of the dot.com and aerospace industries put a chill on the Western Washington economy, and the ripple effects have spread across the state, Lowe said. At 7.3 percent, Washington and Alaska share the second-worst unemployment rate in the nation, behind Oregon.

According to OFM estimates, San Juan is one of seven counties in the state where annual deaths outnumber births. Still, the state office estimates about 200 new residents will join the local population each year during the next decade. School enrollments, however, indicate fewer are likely to be riding skateboards or looking for summer paper routes.

Public school officials on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan islands all anticipate enrollment to remain flat or fall next year. Of the three, the biggest drop has been on Orcas Island where school officials have watched enrollment decline by 135 students since 1999, and predict that 20 fewer full-time students will attend classes this fall. School officials on San Juan Island are planning on 25 fewer students for the upcoming school year while Lopez is anticipating a drop-off of about 20 students.

“Last summer we saw an exodus of 23 families,” said Barry Acker, superintendent on Orcas Island. “Of those families, 18 left the islands altogether.”

Acker blames the steady enrollment drop on an all-too-familiar theme most working families and parents of young children face in the islands -- lack of affordable housing and good year-round jobs.

“After awhile, I think a lot of people realize the sacrifices it takes to stay here are too much,” Acker said. “The islands are a great place to raise kids, unless you’re rarely home because you’ve got to work all the time.”


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