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Census: Strong population growth in Valley; Tucson area tops 1 million

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WASHINGTON – Maricopa County and metro Phoenix posted some of the nation’s largest population gains between 2013 and 2014, while metro Tucson topped 1 million residents last year, according to new Census Bureau estimates.

The estimates, released Thursday, said Maricopa County added 74,027 people in the year, the second-biggest jump among counties in the nation. Its growth trailed only Texas’ Harris County, home to Houston.

Maricopa’s population stood at just under 4.1 million, the bureau said.

The 84,980 new residents in the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale area made up the sixth-largest increase in the nation for metro areas.

While business officials welcomed the numbers as evidence that the state continues to climb out of the recession, others were not so sure.

Tom Rex, associate director of the W.P. Carey School’s Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research, said the growth in the Phoenix area was not as fast as expected.

“Everyone was expecting by 2014 and 2015 that we’d be back to normal, but that’s not the case yet,” Rex said. “The whole economy is coming back, including housing and real estate, but it’s not at the normal rate that we’ve been in the past.”

But the Morrison Institute’s Bill Hart sees the increase in population as a sign that the region is on the road to recovery.

“Phoenix and the metro area have always been known for medium- and low-wage jobs, which dropped out during the recession,” said Hart, a senior policy analyst for the institute. “And those seem to be coming back.

“We’re starting to get an uptick on the housing market, and as construction comes back, those will bring back the people,” he said.

While Maricopa County’s population stood above the 4 million mark, the Tucson metro area – which includes most of Pima County – cracked 1 million residents after hovering near that mark for several years. That made Tucson the 53rd-largest metro area in the nation.

“Now we’re on the list of cities with 1 million or more, so if companies take a look at that list, they may consider Tucson now,” said Robert Medler, vice president for government affairs at the Tucson Metro Chamber.

“It also means new customers for businesses as well,” Medler said. “Tucson has had a relatively slow recovery, so more customers is good for business.”

Rex agreed that Tucson “has been really struggling for the past few years.”

“Its growth rate is far below its normal,” Rex said. “It, too, suffered through the real estate boom and bust, but it’s much smaller and doesn’t have as broad a base as Phoenix.”

While metro Phoenix and Maricopa County have been growing steadily, Rex said he expects an eventual slowdown in the Valley’s growth.

“Every metro area … goes through a fast growth phase, followed by a much slower growth, such as Los Angeles,” Rex said. “At some point, that will happen eventually to Phoenix.”

But business groups welcomed the growth the state is seeing in the here and now. They said population growth and economic growth go hand-in-hand.

“Business helps drive population growth, and when businesses expand so does the state economy,” said Garrick Taylor, a spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. “We’re making the right moves in job attraction.”