The San Joaquin Valley grew faster than most of California over the past decade and now claims two of the state's 10 largest cities -- Fresno and Bakersfield -- according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Valley's growth was fueled by a soaring Hispanic population, which in Fresno, Madera and Kings counties now makes up first-time majorities, the census shows.
"I guess you could say that's a milestone," said Kathy Chung, senior regional planner for the Fresno Council of Governments. "We always knew we were changing, but we're changing at a more rapid rate. We're growing more diverse more quickly than we thought."
Between 2000 and 2010, the city of Fresno saw its population climb nearly 16% to 494,665, helping it leap past Long Beach to become the fifth-largest city in California, according to the 2010 census figures released Tuesday.
The population of Bakersfield, meanwhile, increased 41% to nearly 350,000 during the decade, jumping three places to become the state's ninth-largest city.
Fresno County's population, during that time, was up 16% to 930,450
The growth underscored a trend of more Californians moving inland to flee the coast's high cost of living, population experts say.
"This definitely shows where the population is heading," noted John Malson, acting chief of the state Department of Finance demographics unit. "People have moved to cheaper housing."
The Central Valley, along with the Inland Empire in Southern California, was a primary destination, he said.
When Harry Armstrong first joined the City Council in Clovis in 1970, the population of the Fresno County community was just 18,000. Now, more than four decades later, it is pushing 100,000 and remains arguably the county's most dynamic city.
"It's really the schools and the city itself," Armstrong said. "It's a combination of both."
Census figures show the population of Clovis grew nearly 40% between 2000 and 2010, from 68,468 in 2000 to 95,631.
Growth, in fact, was everywhere in Fresno County, even on the less populated and economically struggling west side.
Firebaugh, for instance, grew more than 30% over the decade and now has more than 7,500 people.
City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez said Firebaugh has encouraged the trend by diversifying its agriculture-dependent economy. Now, Ramirez is seeking chain restaurants such as McDonalds, as well as a CVS or Walgreens drug store.
Tulare, Madera, San Joaquin and Kern counties drove home the Valley's growth trend, all posting population gains greater than 20% between 2000 and 2010, according to the census.
In contrast, Los Angeles and the Bay Area saw population increases in single-digit percentages.
Statewide, the population of 37.3 million, according to the 2010 census, marked a less dramatic rise than in previous decades -- about 10%.
Malson, with the Department of Finance, said even the substantial gains in California's inland communities weren't as high as population experts had projected earlier in the decade. The reason, he said, was the economy.
Fresno County, for example, remained well short of the state's 23% growth forecast for the decade.
"The Central Valley was a fast-growing area prior to the recession. There was a lot of housing growth," Malson said "The recession, you might say, put a stop to that."
Malson suggested more people moved out of California or chose not to relocate here with the lure of jobs and a robust economy gone.
The white population was the biggest casualty. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of white residents fell broadly across the Valley, dropping 4%, for example, in Fresno County, according to the census.
The Hispanic population, though, more than offset the losses.
Fresno County's Hispanic residents now account for just more than 50% of the population. In Kings County, they've grown to 51% and in Madera County 54%.
The agricultural economy of the Valley and longtime ties to Mexico, on top of a relatively young and child-bearing population, accounted for the gains, population experts say.
The trend held statewide. Hispanics now number 14 million residents in California, according to the census.
"Reaching that majority population is where California is headed," said Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California. "The San Joaquin Valley is really leading the way."
John Navarrette, Fresno County government's top administrator, said the increase comes as no surprise. Public services to the Hispanic community have naturally increased with the population, though the group's representation in government has lagged, he said.
"Clearly, the numbers would lead one to believe that they're a growing voice and should be felt in all levels of public service, from school board to city councils to boards of supervisors," he said. "But having the numbers is one thing and participating is another."
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