The impact of the Great Recession on Routt County was widespread. There were visible signs of change such as falling real estate prices, declining retail sales and rising unemployment. However, the Yampa Valley also was affected in a less visible but potentially longer-lasting and more meaningful way. The recession accelerated a demographic transformation that already was underway.
According to estimates from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs State Demography Office, after growing at an average rate of 2.1 percent between 2006 and 2009, the population in Routt County declined from 25,509 in 2010 to 23,240 in 2012. When we examine the change in population by age group, clear trends emerge.
U.S. Census Bureau data reveals that the population reduction occurred as a result of the movement of working adults and their families out of the Yampa Valley. However, the recession did not impact the migration of older adults into the valley. Fact is, Routt and Moffat counties increasingly have become destinations for older adults and retirees. Since the recession, older adults have become the driving force behind all population growth in the valley. This demographic shift is transforming the face of the Yampa Valley and has big implications — from the mix of local businesses to enrollment in schools.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the year 2000, children 19 or younger accounted for 25 percent of the population in Routt County, adults 20 to 59 accounted for 67 percent, and adults 60 years or older accounted for 8 percent. By 2009, the share of children had fallen to 23 percent and the share of working age adults dropped to 66 percent. In contrast, the share of seniors had increased from 8 percent to 14 percent. In fact, the growth in the population of older adults accounted nearly half of the entire population growth between 2000 and 2009.
By 2012, the impact of the recession had rippled through the population. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, more than 900 working age adults left the county between 2009 and 2012, and the population of children declined by 246. However, the flow of older adults in the county continued unabated. This age group is driven here by quality of life, not jobs. The number of older adults in Routt County increased by 796 even though the total population in the county fell by 354.
So which direction are population levels headed? If recent history is a guide, the number of older adults in the county is likely to continue to rise at a rate of at least 300 people per year. At the same time, the outward flow of working age adults and children appears to have tapered off. After this year, it’s reasonable to expect positive net migration in the range of 300 and natural population growth (i.e. births-deaths) of about 150 per year. This means that the population likely will grow at about 450 people per year or a rate of about 1.8 percent during the next several years. This doesn’t rule out future positive migration levels from families and working age adults. However, more local jobs and location-neutral work opportunities will be required for that to happen. In the meantime, we’ll continue to witness the graying of Yampa Valley.
Routt County's change in population by age group, 2001 to 2012