Ryan McPike, owner of Maine Salt Company in Hermon, is shown at his business in December 2019. Hermon has grown at the fastest clip of any Bangor-area town since 2010, with its population growth of nearly 20 percent almost offsetting Bangor's population loss. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The city of Bangor lost almost 4 percent of its population in the last decade, continuing a trend that has seen people flock from Maine’s third-largest city to its surrounding suburbs.

Bangor lost 1,286 people between 2010 and 2020, the most of any community in Maine in absolute terms, according to census data released Thursday. Its population in 2020 was 31,753.

But growth in the ring of towns around Bangor essentially offset the city’s loss of population. Hermon gained more than 1,000 new people from 2010 to 2020, growing at the fastest clip of any Bangor-area town. Its population grew by nearly 20 percent, and it gained almost as many people as Bangor lost. Orono, Hampden and Holden also gained hundreds of residents each, growing by at least 6 percent over the past decade.

Hermon has now seen double-digit population growth in every decade since 1950, when only 1,728 people lived there. Almost 6,500 people now call Hermon home.

That growth has coincided with a rise of new businesses and the expansion of old ones in the community just west of Bangor. The influx of new students into the Hermon School Department even required the district to add 10 classrooms to Hermon Elementary School in recent years.

One expert said the data reflected a trend dating back to the 1970s of Mainers migrating from core cities such as Bangor toward surrounding towns, where taxes and the costs of development and housing are lower. While outside of city boundaries, those towns provide proximity to employment opportunities and accompanying amenities in nearby cities.

Part of what attracts Hermon residents to the town is its closeness to Bangor and its position at the “crossroads of a transportation network,” said Evan Richert, a retired Orono town planner and former head of the State Planning Office.

The decline of paper mills and other manufacturing jobs may explain some of Penobscot County’s overall slow population decline, Richert said. Penobscot County as a whole lost 1.1 percent of its population, or 1,724 residents, between 2010 and 2020, bringing its total population to 152,199 people.

While the health care industry is now a major employer in the Bangor area, those organizations don’t have the same employment potential as some other industries that produce products or services used largely outside of the state.

“We’ve got some key employers like Cross Insurance and Bangor Savings Bank but those can’t scale up the same way that Idexx or WEX can,” he said, referring to two companies based in the Portland area that are major national players in their respective industries, veterinary diagnostics and business services.

While Bangor shrank, it saw its population become more diverse. Bangor’s non-Hispanic white population dropped from 92 percent of residents in 2010 to 87 percent last year. The city’s population of residents who identify as two or more races grew the most, by nearly 900 people between 2010 and 2020. The city also saw increases in its Latino, Black and Asian populations.

People who identify as multiracial span a broad spectrum, with some demographers saying the numbers may not reflect a racial shift as much as people who previously identified as white shifting to multiracial identities. Others believe it could arise from uncertainty among Hispanic Americans about answering census questions concerning their racial identity.

While Maine as a whole grew more diverse over the past decade, it remains the whitest state in the country, with a little more than 90 percent identifying as non-Hispanic white.

Bangor was the only metropolitan area in Maine that lost people in the last decade, declining by 1,700 residents. Maine’s two other metropolitan areas — the Portland and Lewiston areas — both grew, with the Portland area adding more than 37,000 residents and the Lewiston-Auburn area adding more than 3,400.

But patterns of population change weren’t uniform across the Bangor metro area. Brewer, a city of almost 10,000 people, grew by 2 percent, or 190 residents, over the past decade. The Census Bureau had estimated that the city lost residents between 2010 and 2019. The Census Bureau’s annual estimates had actually predicted a smaller population increase for Hermon than the official 2020 census data showed.

Clifton saw the most sizable rate of population decline in the Bangor area: it lost about 80 people, a 9 percent decline. Veazie and Old Town also lost a little more than 5 percent each of their populations, a total of 514 people between the two communities.

As for counties, Penobscot County wasn’t the only one in the region to lose population.

Piscataquis County, Maine’s least populous, lost more than 2 percent of its population, with the loss of 400 residents bringing the county’s population to 16,800. Aroostook County, the largest county by land size east of the Mississippi River, suffered the biggest decline in its population. More than 4,400 left the county between 2010 and 2020, more than a 6 percent decline. Caribou and Presque Isle, Aroostook County’s two largest municipalities, suffered the biggest population losses in Maine after Bangor, in absolute terms. Washington County also saw a population decline of more than 1,700 residents, or more than 5 percent of its population.

Waldo County grew by about 800 residents, or 2 percent, including an increase of 270 residents in Belfast, that county’s largest community. Hancock County also grew by about 2 percent, adding more than 1,000 residents. That county’s growth included population gains in Ellsworth and surrounding towns.

The state saw a slim population increase of 2.6 percent, most of which was in its southern region.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misstated Hancock County’s population change and the size of Piscataquis County’s population loss.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.