BANGOR, Maine —- Since 2000, local growth has been anything but invisible as new hotels, health care facilities and national retail chains have sprung up and opened their doors in the largest service center community for eastern and northern Maine.
Bangor, with 5 percent population growth in the past decade, is Maine’s third-largest city and the largest in Maine to exceed the statewide population growth rate of 4.2 percent, according to official 2010 census data. But the most telling factor in the city’s recent growth might lie just beyond the city limits.
Among nearly two dozen towns in Greater Bangor, the overall population growth rate was two to three times higher than the population growth rates of its central cities of Bangor and Brewer. Since 2000, Brewer’s population grew by 5.5 percent.
When factoring in 23 Penobscot County towns within roughly 15 miles of Bangor, the overall population growth in the city’s suburbs was 14 percent, more than three times the statewide average, according to a Bangor Daily News analysis. Of those towns, Levant’s population grew by more than 30 percent while the individual populations of Bradley, Clifton, Etna, Hermon and Stetson each grew by more than 20 percent.
Nine towns with populations that grew by nearly 15 percent or more — Carmel, Corinth, Etna, Glenburn, Hampden, Hermon, Kenduskeag, Levant and Stetson — all make up one contiguous land mass west and northwest of Bangor. As a group, these nine towns gained 4,500 residents, a population increase of more than 18 percent from their cumulative 2000 total.
“I would say those are significant growth rates,” James McConnon, an economist at University of Maine, said Wednesday.
McConnon, who closely follows population changes as part of his research into Bangor area retail sales, pointed out that Penobscot County’s population decreased during the previous decade, from 146,601 residents in 1990 to 144,919 in 2000.
“It’s not tremendous growth, but it’s a turnaround in Penobscot County from the previous decade,” he added. “I see that as a generally positive thing for the region.”
The estimated 14 percent overall suburban growth rate around Bangor does not include the city of Old Town, which saw its population shrink by more than 3 percent over the past 10 years, most likely due to Georgia-Pacific’s closure of the town’s pulp and paper mill in 2006. Towns that were included by the Bangor Daily News in the city’s suburban growth estimates are Alton, Bradford, Bradley, Carmel, Clifton, Corinth, Dixmont, Eddington, Etna, Exeter, Glenburn, Hampden, Hermon, Holden, Hudson, Kenduskeag, Levant, Milford, Newburgh, Orono, Orrington, Stetson and Veazie.
Overall, these Penobscot County towns plus Bangor and Brewer account for all of the county’s growth since 2000. Census figures indicate the county’s population grew between 2000 and 2010 by 9,004 residents, from 144,919 to 153,923.
Including Bangor and Brewer, population in Greater Bangor grew by more than 9,500 total residents in the past decade. That’s the equivalent of a town approximately the size of Presque Isle sprouting up just outside of Bangor and Brewer over the past 10 years.
The overall double-digit percentage growth rate for Penobscot County towns in suburban Bangor outpaces the population growth rates for suburban towns in other counties, according to Joel Johnson, an economist with Maine State Planning Office.
“The Bangor suburbs grew quickly over the past decade,” Johnson said Friday.
Johnson cautioned that, with Maine being a largely rural state, trying to define what a suburban town is can be tricky. Many Mainers commute long distances for work, he said, so whether certain municipalities can be considered part of a larger city’s suburban area can be largely subjective.
Johnson said he independently looked at the population growth of 12 towns immediately surrounding Bangor, and came up with an overall suburban growth rate of around 12 percent. He estimated that those towns, with an overall increase of about 5,000 total residents, had half the overall population increase of eight suburban towns surrounding Portland. Still, the suburban growth rates around Portland and Lewiston were each a few percentage points lower than Bangor’s suburban growth rate, while those around Augusta and Waterville were “much lower,” he said.
According to a Bangor Daily News analysis, Androscoggin and Cumberland counties each had about 7 percent population growth in the suburban towns that are within approximately 15 miles of their respective urban centers — Lewiston and Auburn in Androscoggin County, and Portland and South Portland in Cumberland County. When including towns beyond the county borders but within that same approximate radius, the average suburban population growth for each urban center dips closer to 6 percent.
Municipalities within the same approximate radius of Augusta and Waterville in Kennebec County had a cumulative population growth rate of about 5 percent — still above the statewide average, but roughly one-third of the population growth rate around Bangor, according to the Bangor Daily News analysis.
Johnson said the growth of suburban Bangor “fits in well” with the overall population growth in the region, including in Bangor and Brewer.
“I don’t think it’s some sort of coincidence that some of [the suburban Bangor towns] are growing at fast rates,” he said.
In Levant — which grew by nearly a third, from 2,171 residents in 2000 to 2,851 in 2010 — the local population increase has dovetailed with an increase in housing development. John Ellis, Levant’s code enforcement officer since 2005, said Friday that 14 subdivisions have been built in town during his tenure. Aside from a few convenience stores and churches, Levant serves mostly as a bedroom community for people who work in Bangor and Brewer, he said.
Ellis said Levant’s low local property tax rate and plenty of developable land are among the factors that have helped draw new residents to town as the region’s overall population has grown.
“We have a pretty good school system,” Ellis said. “We don’t have a lot of crime, knock on wood.”
Johnson said that without knowing the demographic composition of the added population in and around Bangor, it is unclear what the economic implications of the population growth in the area might be. The U.S. Census Bureau has yet to release detailed information that would indicate what percentage of the area’s adult population is of college age, what percentage may be above age 25, or what percentage is above age 60, he said.
Generally speaking, Johnson said, population changes often figure into a region’s relative economic health.
“I think it is a good sign that our metro areas are growing,” Johnson said. “A big component of economic growth is population growth.”
McConnon, the UMaine economist, said population growth in the Bangor area likely is having a positive economic impact. Citing state statistics, McConnon said the population increase has coincided with an increase in the number of jobs in and around Bangor in the past decade. As the suburban population grows, he said, it will need more things such as local grocery stores, which should lead to more economic opportunities.
“There would be a multiplier effect in those areas,” McConnon said.
Beyond the availability of jobs, however, the area’s lifestyle and public investment also figure into its population growth, McConnon added.
The American Folk Festival, Bangor’s Waterfront Concerts, Hermon’s investment in broadband Internet access, and the possibility of a new arena in Bangor — all new within the past decade — likely have helped make the area a more appealing place to live, he said. He speculated that recreational opportunities such as those offered at Pushaw Lake, or the development of groups such as Fusion Bangor, also may have helped encourage younger people to seek jobs in the area instead of moving away.
“I think you have the makings of a sustainable community,” McConnon said.