Population increase was disappointing

They say demographics are destiny.

Which makes me think that the low-population (comparatively) and low workforce numbers Grand County has been enduring for years are likely to continue. I’m referring here to the census numbers released last week that show the county population is up by 5.9 percent, which is actually a meager increase when compared to the state, which saw a 15 percent increase.

This has implications for our businesses, our schools, local government and our tourism base.

Personally, I was hoping that Grand County could at least have boasted a population in excess of 16,000, even 17,000. This is because study after study shows that business stability and business growth over time is driven primarily by full-time, year-round residents. In the simplest distillation of that, places with more permanent residents have more business and more stable businesses and a better tax base.

Places with more permanent residents have also have the force of numbers and human momentum that result in better education, cultural expansion and diversity of viewpoints and political power. More people equals more votes, which equals better representation for our area.

We could parse why Granby and Fraser have the largest increases. It is still the truth that Granby is the largest town in the county with more than 2,000 residents. There was a time that I remember when Kremmling and Granby contended for being the largest town.

Many people who don’t know any better just assume that Winter Park or Fraser would be the largest towns in the county. They aren’t. But if Fraser and Winter Park were to merge and become one town, that town would be the largest town in the county with 2,433 residents, or roughly 400 more than Granby.

For those who have come to Grand County to escape the world or enjoy a placid retirement, the drive to get more permanent residents may seem to be a bad idea. They needn’t worry because our permanent resident increase isn’t astounding.

The real news of the census figures is in the housing units. The census says the county has 16,633 housing units, with a growth of only 572 in 10 years. That seems wrong (Did the Troublesome fire enter into that math? Seems unlikely as the Census county took place before the fire.) And less than half of our housing units are occupied, which is a unit where the primary owner lives elsewhere or it is unoccupied.

Here we go again on the trend wherein Grand County just might lead the state for what we call second homes. These are, basically, vacation homes. It used to be that Grand County had about 60 percent second homes. That’s a large number and that trend is continuing.

That points to a conundrum all of us have seen in the last four years. While permanent resident numbers aren’t booming, the truth is that our roads are much busier, our hiking trails are getting crowded and the lines in stores are longer. Tourism numbers are certainly up and they far exceed the growth rate of 5.9 percent for the county.

The best gauge of that is the massive jump in sales tax revenues throughout the county that far exceed our population growth rate. That’s because more and more visitors are coming to the county boosted by increasingly strong (sometimes seemingly desperate) marketing campaigns, the boom in short term rentals, COVID and the population boom on the Front Range.

But here we go again. We don’t have enough people living here year-round to handle that outsized increase in tourism. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

I’ve heard some people second guessing the census numbers, saying the Census miscounted or under-counted or misclassified some situations because of COVID-related issues, etc. But my gut feeling is that the numbers seem right.

Grand is still a sparsely populated county challenged by a burgeoning tourism economy that stretches the limits of local resources to pay for and service the growth.

Patrick Brower is the Enterprise Facilitator for the Grand Enterprise Initiative. He provides free and confidential business management coaching for anyone who wants to start or expand a business in Grand County. He can be reached at 970-531-0632 or at patrickbrower@kapoks.org.

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