Census: Northern, eastern Maine continue to lose people

Posted March 24, 2011, at 3:38 p.m.
Last modified March 24, 2011, at 8:44 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — The population in northern and eastern Maine continued to decline while the state’s largest urban areas — Portland, Lewiston and Bangor — saw more people living within their city limits, according to census data released Thursday.

When Kathy Patterson, economic development coordinator for the city of Bangor, heard that the population has jumped by 5 percent since 2000, she said it was good news for a city that had feared it was on a long-term decline.

“Bangor, 33,000 people. Oh, cool,” she said, looking at 2010 census data for the first time Thursday while talking with a reporter. Ten years ago, the 2000 census showed that Bangor had lost 1,708 people — which was a reversal of decades of slow growth. If the 2010 census had shown another drop in population, it would have been very bad news, said Patterson.

“Had a drop happened again, we’d be looking at a trend,” she said. “This isn’t a huge gain, but we can’t see a trend now. You don’t want to lose people.”

A significant release of data about Maine by the U.S. Census Bureau Thursday afternoon had people across the state discovering how their towns, cities and counties have changed in terms of population, racial makeup and housing stock. Though the information released Thursday was general in nature compared to more data coming later this year, it provides valuable information to governments and agencies trying to predict what their missions will be in the future.

“As soon as you see this data you realize it’s not just numbers, that these are real people and they’re all going to have real needs,” said Patterson. “If you know what your population looks like and what the trend is, it’s easier to see what the needs will be down the road.”

Thomas Merrill, an economist for the State Planning Office, was among the first people in Maine to see the new census data and for the most part, it was what he expected. He saw population growth in places where there were already concentrations of people, namely York and Cumberland counties. He saw vacant housing continuing to increase in the mill towns. He saw continuing decline in northern and eastern regions such as Washington and Aroostook counties, which were the only counties in Maine to see population drops between 2000 and 2010. Both counties lost around 3 percent of their people.

“I didn’t see any big surprises,” he said.

But the data also raised questions for Merrill.

Orono, for example, now has a population of 10,362, which is 13.7 percent higher than 10 years ago. That’s the third-highest percentage jump among Maine’s 20 largest municipalities, beaten only by the southern Maine towns of Windham and Gorham.

“It’s a little puzzling,” he said. “The only correlation between those three towns is colleges.”

Another area of Maine where there was significant population growth was Waldo County, where the population increased 6.9 percent to 38,786 — which was the largest percentage jump for any county. It amounts to about 2,500 new people since 2000, which surprised even the people who live there.

Waldo County Clerk Barbara Arseneau said she suspects that employers such as Waldo County General Hospital, Athenahealth Inc. and Bank of America drove some of the increase, but she didn’t expect such a big number.

Joyce Scott, executive director for Waldo Community Action Partners, which administers numerous social services, shared Arseneau’s surprise.

“We’ve been waiting for these numbers with bated breath,” said Scott. “I’m a little bit shocked, to be honest. I wonder who they are”

Population changes and other demographics tell Scott not only what communities’ needs will be in the future — ranging from kids in Head Start to senior citizens with transportation challenges — they give her hard facts with which to advocate for taxpayer funding and private grants. With major cuts in state funding on the horizon and a suffering philanthropy atmosphere, Scott says she’s glad to see the increase.

“It at least gives you current information you can use to support whatever program it is that you have going,” she said. “Trying to keep all these balls in the air right now is a little tough.”

Charles Colgan of the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie Institute of Public Service told the Associated Press that the data showed promising gains for urban areas, particularly Portland. Maine’s largest city, at 66,194, grew by 3 percent. The surrounding communities also showed growth, including Windham and Gorham’s 14.1 percent and 15.8 percent increases, respectively.

“The Portland area has real strength in terms of center-city grown and in the suburbs,” said Colgan. “That runs counter to the trend of the past 30 years when center cities were stagnant and suburbs were growing. Now both are happening.”

The city of Auburn and the town of Brunswick were the only municipalities with populations more than 20,000 who lost residents. Auburn dropped 0.6 percent to 23,055. Brunswick, which has seen the closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station in the past four years, dropped 4.2 percent to 20,278.

Maine’s minority population is also growing.

In 2010, minorities made up about 5 percent of the state’s population, up from 3.1 percent in 2000. While the numbers are small, the gains are significant, Colgan said.

“When you consider that in the 1990 census we were only 1 percent minorities and now we’re nearly 5 percent minorities, that’s a noticeable change,” he said.

Maine’s black population grew the fastest — 128 percent — among the state’s minority groups, to 21,764, according to the Census. The increase reflects the influx of immigrants, particularly from Sudan and Somalia.

For more information go to the Maine State Planning Office census data website .  http://www.maine.gov/spo/economics/census/

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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