The San Joaquin Valley is losing its distinction as a region of booming growth.
Many of the region's largest metro areas are continuing to see their populations stand idle, posting their slowest rates of growth in years in 2012, according to census data released today.
The population of the Fresno metro area, which encompasses Fresno County, increased a mere 0.7% between 2011 and 2012 to 947,895 residents. It's the area's smallest bump in more than a decade.
The Bay Area and parts of Southern California, meanwhile, saw their growth rates climb. The San Jose metro area logged the state's biggest jump in population percentage-wise -- 1.4% between 2011 and 2012 -- while the San Francisco area was a close second, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"The notion that the coast and particularly the Bay Area are growing faster than the Valley, that turns the last couple of decades on its head," said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
The reason for the change, say Michael and others, is simple: economics.
With the recession having left the Valley's job market in shambles, people are moving out of the area and going to places where there's work.
This, in contrast to what was happening just a few years earlier when throngs flocked to the Valley from all parts of California, largely to enjoy the area's low cost of living.
"The Bay Area and, to some degree, Southern California is where the recovery is starting to show up. The Central Valley, not so much." said John Malson, assistant chief demographer for the state Department of Finance. "There's going to be more growth" in the places where the jobs are, he said.
The job prospects in parts of California have gotten so strong, Malson added, that the number of people leaving the state has begun to drop after years of an increasing exodus.
"People have a little more optimism apparently about the economy in California," he said.
That optimism appears yet to hit the Valley.
Population growth was just 1% or less in most of the region's metro areas, according to the census. This compares to growth rates approaching 3% and 4% in many areas less than a decade ago.
The Bakersfield and Stockton areas joined Fresno in seeing their growth rate fall last year, as did the smaller metro areas of Visalia and Merced.
Modesto posted a slight uptick in its population growth, but year-over-year the gain was still a modest 0.7%.
Most of the Valley is continuing to see immigration from abroad, but the number of new immigrants is far less than the number of domestic residents moving out, according to the data.
Growth rates were tallied for the period from July 2011 through June 2012.
Many believe the Valley's population numbers will boom again.
State projections released earlier this year suggest that the eight-county region will see rampant growth over the next 50 years, doubling its population to 8.2 million residents by 2060.
Michael, with the University of the Pacific, said that growth is likely to come sooner rather than later. As coastal cities near their full economic recovery, he explained, the areas will become saturated and residents will begin to move and work elsewhere or move and commute from elsewhere.
"I think we're going to see more people driven inland once again," he said.
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