Tuolumne County residents, Realtors and business owners have weathered some tough economic storms over the past three years. Some of the hardship is reflected in the latest release of 2010 census data.
While California grew by 10 percent — and the entire U.S. by 9.7 percent — Tuolumne County grew by just 1.6 percent over the last 10 years. After growing by 4 percent in 2000-2007, the loss of jobs in logging, timber mills, construction, government and retail and the accompanying relocation of young families — coupled with less “in-migration” of retirees from other California communities — all contributed to population declines over the past three years.
Attracting California and out-of state families to relocate to Tuolumne County is especially critical due to our demographics. We average roughly 450 births and 600 deaths each year. Obviously, we can grow only by offsetting this “natural” decrease in annual population by attracting new residents. Tuolumne County ranks sixth out of 58 California counties in terms of its aging population. The median age for Tuolumne residents is 47.3; for Calaveras it’s 49.2 (fourth highest in the state). Statewide the median age is 35.2
We have the kind of lifestyle and amenities that have drawn people for years — especially active retirees. Along with our favorable climate, scenic beauty, abundant recreational opportunities and Gold Rush history, we have excellent medical facilities, responsive government officials, first-rate schools, wonderful churches, community theaters and engaged, generous and caring citizens. As new retailers open for business and existing businesses expand, Sonora is re-emerging as a regional shopping destination. Groveland and the South County continues to grow and develop as an attractive gateway to Yosemite National Park.
Although some may be discouraged by the slow rate of growth, Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority executive director Larry Cope says: “I feel that it’s too early to draw any substantial conclusions out of the preliminary Census Data. We have to remember that it represents only a “snapshot in time” of our community. Changes are happening constantly.”
For those people who say they are happy to see a no-growth environment, they don’t realize that stagnation leads to economic decline, reductions in government services, fewer business start-ups and an overall deterioration in community well-being.
No one is advocating the galloping and excessive population growth seen in Modesto or Merced in years past. That’s never going to happen here. In a county where federal government ownership of land approaches 80 percent, where the Williamson Act protects another 10 percent of ranchland, Tuolumne County has only an estimated 3 percent of its acreage left available for residential or commercial development, according to data compiled from the Tuolumne County Planning Department.
Many would hope to see a moderate growth rate of 1 percent a year — 10 percent for a decade. This would be consistent with the Tuolumne Tomorrow Regional Blueprint — a planning document that will help the county prepare for its inevitable rebound and expansion. Projections say that by 2050 Tuolumne County’s population will grow by 30,000 residents — from 56,000 to 86,000.
Remember also that the latest census data reflects the on-going rural nature and abundance of open space in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties — something we all want to preserve. Tuolumne has a population of 25 persons per square mile; Calaveras has 45 per square mile. The state average is 239 per square mile. Sacramento County is 1,471 persons per square mile. And don’t even ask about Los Angeles and Orange county numbers — they’re off the charts.
We’re confident that the local economy is in a recovery mode. New hiring at SPI’s Standard Mill, at Sandvik, Avalon Health Care and at local retailers will help Tuolumne County rebound. Housing — always a lagging indicator — will see some pent-up demand break loose soon. Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised budget, released last week, indicates that state tax receipts were $6.6 billion higher than originally forecast. That’s good news for all of us — and especially for K-12 funding.
Job growth and business expansion in Tuolumne County — along with a continued emphasis on economic development and tourism — will help us grow again in population and get our local economy back on track.