The housing bust may have slowed growth throughout California, but not by enough to stop Fresno from reaching a historic milestone.
Sometime in 2009, California's fifth-largest city reached a half-million population, according to new estimates released Thursday by the state Department of Finance Demographic Research Unit.
The state's estimates placed the city's population on Jan. 1 at 502,303, an increase of 7,072 or 1.4% over the previous year -- and 74,651 (17.5%) more than lived here when the last official U.S. census was taken in 2000.
Whatever celebration ensues may be short-lived. The state estimates are to be brought into line with the 2010 census results when they are released early next year. When that last happened in 2001, the state estimates were reduced.
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In the meantime, however, local leaders said the milestone confirms what most people who live here already knew about the recent history of the city and its neighbors.
"Our size may come as a surprise to those who don't know about our region, but it's not to those of us who live here and have seen the rapid growth for the last several decades," Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin said via e-mail from a Sacramento meeting.
No other central San Joaquin Valley city reached a milestone like Fresno's, but Clovis is getting close to six figures with 96,868 people as of Jan. 1. That's a 41% increase from its 2000 figure of 68,516.
Madera now has 58,243 and Visalia has 125,971, according to the new estimates. Fresno County's total population stands at 953,761, up from 799,407 in 2000. Tulare County now has 447,814 people; Kings County 156,289 and Madera County 153,655.
For the decade, the region's fastest-growing city in percentage terms was Kerman, which went from 8,548 in 2000 to 14,381 now, a 68.2% increase. But like cities elsewhere in California, Kerman slowed at the end of the decade, growing only 2.4% in 2009.
Huron grew at the state's sixth-fastest percentage rate in 2009, rising 3.3% to 8,082. Lemoore was 10th with 25,461, a 2.8% increase. Visalia ranked seventh in terms of numerical population growth, picking up 2,498 residents.
Statewide, the population grew from 33,873,086 in 2000 to an estimated 38,648,090 now. That's a 14.1% increase for the decade but only 1% for the year. The unit's demographers said last year's growth rate for California was the slowest since 1995.
Housing growth peaked statewide in 2005 when 197,477 new units were added. By 2009, that number had fallen to 62,385. Fresno's dropoff may have been even worse. Michael Prandini, president and CEO of the Building Industry Association of Fresno and Madera counties, said single-family home building permits in the city declined from 2,247 in 2005 to only 228 in 2009.
"It went to almost nothing, but I get a sense it's starting to pick up again," Prandini said.
Only three cities in the region -- Chowchilla, Corcoran and Coalinga -- lost population in 2009 and all have something in common: prisons.
Chowchilla lost 486 inmates but gained some other residents for a net loss of 336 (1.8%). The others lost smaller numbers. The state said California's total inmate population fell 3,189 to 181,964 in 2009 as prisoners were relocated within the state or to other states.