Census data reveals which American counties saw the decade's biggest growth

Your 2010 U.S. Census Bureau forms are filled out and mailed back by now -- right? The April 1 deadline has come and gone.

It will take months, even years, however, for the decennial data to be sifted, analyzed and acted upon -- having an impact on congressional representation and other important outcomes determined by the information.

Demographers are getting a glimpse of one piece of the puzzle already, however: which U.S. counties had the biggest population growth over the last 10 years, based on recently released Census population estimates for the last decade and a Forbes.com analysis of those estimates. The results are based on net domestic migration, net immigration and new births. The number of people moving out of counties between 2000 and 2008 was subtracted from the number of newcomers.

Despite the resurgence of some urban areas, like downtown Los Angeles, where young professionals seeking culture and night life accessible by foot bought lofts and condos, it is suburban areas that got the big boost, according to the new data. Kendall County outside of Chicago, Il; Pinal County near Phoenix, Ariz.; and Forsyth County near Atlanta, Ga., for example, saw rapid growth (internal migrants made up 39%, 37% and 33% of the population, respectively). That's because the first half of the decade saw a spike in government and education jobs in those locations, and big corporations, such as Coca-Cola and Walmart, boosted their payrolls too. Affluent Americans flocked to Dallas suburbs, which saw a high number -- 30% to 40% -- of in-migration.

It's no big surprise that lots of folks -- boomers, young professionals and snowbirds -- headed for Florida's Sumter, St. John's and Lake counties, where new migrants made up more than 30% of the population over the last decade. Nearly half of Flagler County's current population is composed of migrants; it ranked No. 1 on the list for newcomer growth. Why? Great weather and a big ol' housing boom. Needless to say, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, which saw huge housing bubbles, have seen the reverse in recent years. The full effect of that trend reversal won't show up for some time, says William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Surprisingly, some small rural towns experienced population boomlets. Forest County, Pa., wooded home to Hickory and Harmony -- little hamlets without traffic lights -- still welcomed more than 2,000 new residents over the last nine years. These newbies live in the area only part time, transforming the forested area into a mini-resort.

Population shifts are noted for a number of reasons. They have an impact on an area's political picture, for one: census data help determine political representation based on the number of people that living in an area. Also, politicians running for office must win over new constituencies when migration patterns shift their way, and property-tax revenues rise and fall with population influxes and exoduses.

Sunbelt states, which experienced a massive housing boom during the last decade (especially the first half), should expect slower growth to continue into this decade, economists say, as unemployed Americans stay put, unable to afford big moves. Interstate migration is the lowest today since World War II, Frey says.

With the economy in deep flux and Americans reluctant to move, the big question for the next few years is, which towns will see the big growth and the goodies that go with it? It's anybody's guess right now.
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