Donald Fry: Do census data foretell a Baltimore city population rebound?

By Donald C. Fry

It won’t be official until the 2010 Census Bureau data are released later this year, but Baltimore City appears to have turned a significant corner. The city is showing signs that it has ended its precipitous population slide of the last six decades, according to recently-issued 2009 population estimates and historical data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

While 2010 census data will likely show that Baltimore City’s population has slipped by approximately 2 percent since 2000, most of that decline occurred in the first five years of the decade. Since then, the city’s population appears to have stabilized. The 2009 Census Bureau population estimate for Baltimore City of 637,418 is 499 more residents than the bureau’s 2008 estimate.

The city’s population also increased by 897 residents in 2006, according to census estimates, but then lost 3,500 residents in 2007 and 2008.

Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the major exodus from the city that occurred during the last 50 years has slowed to a trickle and is showing signs of a long-awaited rebound.

During the last 10 years Baltimore City has experienced its smallest population decline, both numerical and percentage, in five decades. And, amid the worst economic recession since the 1930s, the city appears on the verge of ending the current decade on a slight population uptick.

Baltimore City’s population decline began after 1950, when the city reached its peak of 950,000 residents. The early signs of that decline, incidentally, prompted the formation of the Greater Baltimore Committee in 1955 to focus business and civic leaders on addressing the economic winds of change that have since shaped our city and region.

Between 1950 and 2000, the city’s population declined by 288,000. More than two-thirds of that loss occurred between 1970 and 1980, when the city lost 119,000 residents; and between 1990 and 2000, when the city saw its population decline by almost 85,000.

Meanwhile, the region as a whole grew from 1.5 million to 2.6 million during the same time frame.

During the last 10 years, the city’s population decline slowed as middle-class professionals, including many who worked in the Washington, D.C. area, began taking advantage of new housing built in the city, the comparatively attractive housing costs, and relative ease of the commute.

Baltimore City has become the place to be for a whole new middle-class generation of young professionals. Baltimore’s downtown population of almost 40,000 residents within a mile radius of the city’s center now ranks eighth among all U.S. cities.

While for five decades the region’s counties have been able to address the fiscal challenges of funding government by drawing on an increasing residential tax base, the city’s government leaders have faced a diametrically opposite and more difficult fiscal plight.

Baltimore City’s elected leaders have been left with the task of reconciling a declining residential population with a growing need for public services and an infrastructure that was designed for a city of 950,000 residents.

The way out of this conundrum is through the growth of city taxpayers.

To decisively resolve the city’s annual painful fiscal budget process, the city must find ways to grow its business and residential tax base. The most recent census data provides subtle, but nevertheless compelling, evidence that the city could be on the brink of resuming an era of opportunity that the recession interrupted.

The census data lends credence to the anecdotal evidence of a significant resurgence underway in the city that we all noticed, particularly in and around downtown, prior to the recession. The city was dotted with construction cranes. Young people were moving downtown in significant numbers. A genuine night life emerged. The city needs to cultivate the same progress after the recession.

On another front, the city will be right smack in the middle of a major influx of BRAC-related employees during the next 12 months as more than 15,000 military and civilian workers will be relocating to jobs at Ft. Meade in Anne Arundel County and Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County. The city is seeking to capture a portion of that residential growth.
It’s important that city leaders recognize the potential for the city and the opportunities that can be seized if they carefully nurture growth by enacting policies that promote business development and increased population by building on the city’s many strengths and its appeal as a place to live.

For the sake of Baltimore City’s fiscal future, the most important thing that city leaders can do right now is ensure that they convert these early signs of a population up tick into a full-blown rebound.

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