PHOENIX — The suburbs on the edge of the state’s big metro areas are no longer the places to move — at least not at the rate they once were.
New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show the big population shifts are occurring farther and farther out.
“There’s a fairly steady progression outward of the ring of growth,” said Tom Rex, an economist at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.
For example, he said, Chandler used to be one of the boom communities. A decade ago it was growing about 6 percent a year.
Yet the latest numbers covering the year ending July 1 show it adding only 3,882 new residents, or just a 1.6 percent increase.
Chandler did manage to hang on to fourth-place ranking for total population — but just barely. Gilbert is moving up fast, adding 8,662 residents to post a one-year growth rate of 3.8 percent.
That was also good enough to knock Glendale out of the No. 5 slot.
But Rex said even Gilbert’s position is in jeopardy.
“Now you’re moving out, for instance, into Queen Creek,” he said. That town managed to boost the number of residents by 8.1 percent in the last year, the highest in the state; its population is up more than 21 percent since 2010.
The same situation is playing out along the western edge of the Phoenix area, with Buckeye growing 4.5 percent and Goodyear adding 3.8 percent.
And the rest of the state?
“The Tucson area has been pretty much dead in the water since the recession,” Rex said.
The city grew by an anemic 1,450 new residents in the 12-month period, posting a 0.3 percent growth rate. And its population has increased by only 1.3 percent since the beginning of the decade.
How slow is the growth? Marana, which is less than a 10th of the size of Tucson, actually added more people.
Those 1,540 new Marana residents were enough for it to post the sixth highest year-over-year growth rate at 4 percent. Since the decade began, its population is up 14.9 percent.
Even Sahuarita managed to grow by nearly 600, or 2.2 percent.
Yet the closer-in suburbs, including the large unincorporated area of Pima County, managed a growth rate of only 0.7 percent.
Economist George Hammond at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona said the numbers are not surprising. And the key is what’s been happening in Washington, particularly the decision in Congress to balance the budget through “sequestration,” automatic cuts shared almost equally in both civilian and military spending.
“The federal government is a much bigger share of economic activity in Pima (County) than it is in Maricopa or for the state as a whole,” he said, a fact that affected not only the number of civilians employed by the federal government, but also in procurement: what the government buys from private vendors, from simple supplies to missiles.
“That procurement spending fell roughly a third between 2012 and 2013,” Hammond said. “It remains low ... about the level it was in 2013.”
What has slowed growth to a crawl in Pima County has actually put Cochise County into negative numbers. Hardest hit is Sierra Vista, which the Census Bureau reports lost 1,315 residents; a 2.90 percent decline dropped its population to below 44,000.
“It’s related to Fort Huachuca and sequestration,” City Manager Charles Potucek said.
On the plus side, he said, the community’s location near Mexico helps attract shoppers from south of the border. And he said a new 100-bed hospital should help keep patients — and the staff to support it — getting their care locally and prevent “leakage” to facilities in Tucson.
But he acknowledged that the location also presents challenges, being miles off the interstate highway system and having no rail service.
The economic problems go beyond Sierra Vista: Every incorporated Cochise County community shed people, as did the unincorporated area, albeit not at a rate as fast as Sierra Vista.
Many rural locations lost ground. Eloy was down 260 residents, translating to a 1.5 percent decline, with Nogales close behind at 259 fewer residents. Elsewhere, Somerton, Parker, Quartzsite, St. Johns, Eagar, Globe and Miami fell.
One curious outlier is Florence, where the Census Bureau said population rose 1,485 in the last year. But state Demographer Qigui Chang said there’s less there than meets the eye.
He said the population of the Pinal County community is governed by what happens at the prison complex located within its limits. And he said that varies wildly from year to year.
One other issue of note: Even with adding 24,616 new residents, the Census Bureau figures Phoenix still trails Philadelphia, which gained only 4,245 new residents.
At this rate it will take at least another year, if not longer, for Phoenix to get to No. 5 nationally.