Over a decade ago, a concern about the purported rapid growth of the county led to sightings of the bumper sticker: “Don’t Bend Walla Walla!”

At that time, Bend, Ore., was adding to its head count by over 3% per year. In the intervening dozen years, that threat has vanished, as the county’s population has grown ever so slowly.

The recent release from Washington’s Office of Finance Manager (OFM), found in the Trends indicator 0.1.1, doesn’t give us any reason to roll out the old bumper sticker.

OFM has estimated that between April 1, 2018, and April 1 of this year, the county grew by 400 souls, or from 61,800 to 62,200. That’s about two-thirds of 1%, very close to the county’s average growth rate since the start of the century, .63%. Is that fast or slow, bending upward or stagnant?

That’s difficult to answer, but one can make comparisons.

For the most recent year, the state population grew by more than twice that much, or 1.6%. Population in Benton County grew by over three times that much, or 2.2%. Franklin County tacked on an even higher rate of 2.3%. Of all the major metro areas of Eastern Washington, Walla Walla grew the most slowly, except for Yakima.

OFM also estimates the sources of population growth. The Trends tracks the most important component, “Residual Net Migration,” indicator 0.2.1. Essentially, it is an estimate of how many times new residents opened an address here minus how many times an existing resident closed an address. OFM estimated that the balance stood at 445 to the positive, for the 2018 to 2019 period.

That’s a curious result for most communities, since the population gain was estimated to be 400. The only way for this to occur mathematically is for deaths to outnumber births. And that is what OFM has estimated for the county. By 45.

My guess is that this is a phenomenon that will continue into at least the near future. The share of the 65-plus population in the county is nearly 20%, second highest among Eastern Washington metros. (Those online can view this in indicator 0.1.3, “Share of Population by Age Groups.”) 

As Walla Walla becomes an even more popular retirement community, the entrants will likely give birth at lower ratios than in other communities not as influenced by the retiree flows. In fact, births have been declining in absolute terms in the county for several years.

These forces point to the critical role of in-migration in nudging the county’s population higher. Four hundred forty-five is not a large number and in a downturn might easily turn negative. In that case, population growth here would likely turn negative.

This column is written under the presumption that some population growth is positive. Others, say those supporting a zero population growth goal, might disagree. If I hold a widely shared point of view, however, then a follow-up question is: what is the optimal rate? One that is not too fast, nor too slow. Is the community comfortable adding 500 residents a year? Would it be comfortable adding 1,000 per year? This kind of jump has never been observed, by the way.

There are real consequences, of course, for population growth that is very slow or stagnant. Think of the area’s public schools, retail sales, local government revenues, and the real estate sector. Think about how the boundaries of the 16th legislative district might be modified, especially in light of rapid growth of the Tri Cities.

Institutions and the markets can adapt to very slow growth. Japan has served as a positive example for many years now. But such a scenario will make, or should make, leaders here very cautious.

D. Patrick Jones, Ph.D., is executive director of the Institute for Public Policy & Economic Analysis at Eastern Washington University. Find the institute online at www.ewu.edu/policyinstitute.

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