It first came up on the golf course last month. A former coworker of mine said matter-of-factly: “I heard 20,000 people have moved to the Flathead in the last six months.”
“That’s impossible,” I responded. “That’s a city almost the size of Kalispell.”
A week later one of our readers called the office and said he had heard from someone who works in the water department that 15,000 to 20,000 had moved to the valley. I also told him that’s simply too big to be true.
Last week, I received an email that began: “Hi there. Recently I have heard that 30,000 people moved to the valley since the pandemic began …” To her credit, the writer added, “there is no way that number is correct.” She continued: “Have you come across viable numbers or estimates of how many people moved here this year? Please help put a stop to this hyperbole.”
Finally, at a recent board meeting, I listened as the owner of a local bank and an elected public official debated whether the number of newcomers to the area is above or below 7,000. These discussions are what led to our cover story this week, in which Assistant Managing Editor Tristan Scott tries to quantify population growth in place of an official U.S. Census estimate. It’s a tall order.
There are a lot of reasons why just about everyone is talking about everyone who is moving here. Large spikes in population can stress public services and infrastructure. And an influx of people can change the makeup of a community — for better or worse.
Of course, the official once-a-decade U.S. Census just wrapped up, and we will have a more accurate count when that data is crunched. That is, if all those new residents who moved here during a pandemic were actually tallied. Meanwhile, I wanted to provide some context to the numbers being bandied about.
Between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2019, the Census estimates that Flathead County added about 13,000 people. That’s total, in nine years, growing from 90,928 to 103,806. Over that time, only Gallatin County (home to Bozeman) added more people in Montana. And those two areas are among the fastest growing in the United States, especially in recent years.
In fact, Bozeman is the fastest-growing micropolitan area in the country and ranks in the top 10 for percentage growth, adding 2,752 people (or 2.5%) between 2018 and 2019. And the Kalispell area is not far behind. In that same year we added 1,789 people (ranked eighth nationwide) at a growth rate of 1.8%
Even if Flathead County added 6,000 residents since the beginning of the outbreak, that rate of growth is absolutely unprecedented. It would about triple the highest annual rate of growth we’ve recorded within the last decade.
To be sure, the valley has seen a steady influx of residents over a short period of time. Just look at the number of out-of-state license plates dotting our parking lots in what’s supposed to be the beginning of shoulder season. More may be on their way as the coronavirus pandemic has turned mountain towns into “Zoom towns,” attracting an increasing number of transplants who can work remotely.
But color me skeptical that in a six-month period we added a full-time population as big or bigger than Kalispell and our infrastructure and public services didn’t completely break down.