AMERICAN FORK — Utah County is hardly recognizable to Mary Street any more.
When the Coldwell Banker Commercial associate broker moved here in 1994, “we had a very rural feel,” Street said. “Saratoga Springs and Eagle Mountain didn’t exist. And now that area of Utah County is the fastest-growing area.”
Living costs are low. The tech industry is thriving. Recreational opportunities are plentiful.
Now, a new report from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute estimates that Utah County has surpassed Salt Lake County in population growth for the third year in a row.
Between 2015 and 2016, Utah County added 17,668 net residents — the largest increase in the state, according to the institute.
Salt Lake County, which came in second, added 14,223 net residents.
And that increase isn’t just because of large families and high birth rates, according to the report. Utah County saw more than double the number of net migrants than Salt Lake County.
“Every one of our indicators is pointing to the fact that the center of growth in the state, numerically, has really shifted into Utah County,” said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the institute.
Overall, the state added 57,402 people between July 2015 and July 2016, a growth rate of 1.9 percent, according to the report.
The fastest-growing areas are the “ring counties” around Salt Lake City and Provo, including Wasatch County, Morgan County, Juab County and Tooele County.
For Street, the tipping point came during the middle of the recession when developers in Lehi built a large office park at Thanksgiving Park trying to attract technology jobs. Microsoft and Adobe quickly landed in those locations, and others followed suit, Street said.
FrontRunner stations helped further bridge the gap between Utah County and Salt Lake County.
“That area is really an area that’s claimed by both counties,” Street said. “It’s easy for people to live in either county and go to that location to work.”
But Reid Ewing, chairman of the city and metropolitan planning department at the University of Utah, said policymakers need to be careful about how they develop Utah County and other fast-growing areas.
Among other things, urban sprawl has been linked to more traffic, more air pollution, as well as poorer economic mobility. That’s because urban sprawl tends to create jobs that are out of reach for low-income residents who live in city centers and do not have transportation to the suburbs, he said.
Daybreak is an example of a well-planned development that minimizes sprawl with well-connected streets and shopping centers mixed with residential subdivisions, Ewing said.
“Even if we’re developing in south Utah County, we don’t have to develop in a sprawling way,” Ewing said. “We can develop in a more compact way. I’m not saying high density, but higher density.”
The institute’s estimates differ slightly from those of the U.S. Census Bureau, which still has Salt Lake County outpacing Utah County on population growth.
The Kem C. Gardner Institute creates its estimates based on a number of data sources, including birth and death certificates, school enrollment numbers, membership data from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, IRS data and building permit data.
Overall, the institute’s research shows a relatively strong state economy with steady, moderate economic growth, Perlich said.
Although births continue to decline and deaths continue to rise, a boost in migration added 24,742 new residents to the state, according to the report.
“Those are not huge influxes of people, but that is a lot of people. So it gives us confidence in saying the economy is really quite strong and that net in-migration has been re-established,” Perlich said.
However, not all counties have shared in the prosperity equally.
Many energy-producing counties in Utah have struggled and even lost population in the last six years, according to the report.
Over the last year, Uintah, Duchesne, Emery, Daggett, Wayne and Piute counties lost residents, according to the institute’s estimate. Since 2010, the fastest-declining counties have been Emery (-4 percent), Wayne (-2 percent) and Carbon (-1 percent).
While that might not seem like a lot, any decline in population is usually a concern for economists, Perlich said.
“Generally, if it’s flat or zero or even slightly negative, you’re in a holding pattern at best and probably in jeopardy of decline,” Perlich said.
Jordan Leonard, the economic development director in Emery County, said the county suffered after losing several hundred coal mining jobs since the start of the recession. Many homes are up for sale.
“We’re not in dire straits,” he said. “We’re kind of used to boom and bust. But I don’t see them getting any lower than they are now. … There’s really not much more left to lose. We’ve kind of bottomed out.”
Leonard said the county is diversifying its economy into agriculture, manufacturing and tourism.
Even if coal were to have another boom, Leonard estimates just half of those lost jobs would come back. The rest have likely already been permanently lost to automation and other technology, he said.
“I think it’ll come back a little bit,” Leonard said. “But not to where it was.”