PHOENIX - The most far-flung suburbs of Phoenix are the new nirvana, if figures just released by the U.S. Census Bureau are any indicator. The rest of Arizona, including Tucson, not so much.
Buckeye led the state with 4.1 percent growth in population between 2011 and 2012 - a figure that also ranks the rapidly sprawling community 30 miles west of downtown Phoenix as the ninth-fastest-growing in the nation.
Nearby Goodyear took the No. 2 slot in the state at 3.4 percent. And making it all but a grand slam for Maricopa County, seven of the top 10 rapidly growing cities in the state were on or toward the outer edges of the Phoenix growth area.
At the other extreme, many small towns found a net outflow of residents. And the state's southern and western tiers were particularly hard-hit.
Tucson slogged in with just 1,126 more residents over the year, or 0.2 percent growth.
A couple of Tucson's neighbors did manage to keep pace with their Valley of the Sun counterparts. Marana, with 841 added residents, a 2.3 percent growth rate, was the ninth-fastest-growing. And Sahuarita, with 494 more residents, or 1.9 percent growth, was in the 13th spot.
But they were the exception.
Five of the cities at the bottom of the list are in Cochise County, with Tombstone and Huachuca City each losing about 1.8 percent of their already small populations.
And it wasn't just the cities in Southern Arizona and much of the rest of non-metro Phoenix taking the hit. While Maricopa County overall grew by 1.6 percent, Pima County was just over a third of that, at 0.6 percent. And Cochise County lost ground, at minus 1.1 percent.
The biggest loser percentagewise, however, was Parker, with a 3.9 percent population drop, a pattern that played out all along the Colorado River. Census Bureau figures show Yuma and Bullhead City both lost population, with no growth in Lake Havasu City and only a 0.2 percent growth in Kingman.
Marshall Vest, an economist with the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, said the population growth patterns are no real surprise: They mirror where jobs are being created. That presents an interesting problem for the rest of the state.
"It's kind of a chicken-and-egg question of what comes first: population or employment," Vest said.
"Companies are going to locate where there's an available and skilled labor force. And people, likewise, are going to migrate to where the jobs are," Vest said. "It's a dynamic there that feeds on itself."
Even with that, Vest foresees brighter times, particularly for parts of Southern Arizona.
"I think the economy here in Tucson is beginning to accelerate," he said, saying the sluggish year-over-year growth needs to be put in perspective.
"The Phoenix economy dived deeper" than the rest of the state, Vest said. "And so it's coming up a little more rapidly."
Economist Tom Rex, with the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, agreed that population growth rates around the state will even off - but not necessarily because of improvements elsewhere.
"At some point the Phoenix area will get so large the negatives will outweigh the positives," he said, and people no longer will want to move to the Valley. How soon, Rex said, he couldn't say.
"A lot depends on how good a job we do in coming years in handling the growth and providing the infrastructure," he said.
And Rex said other areas of the state should not see their slower growth rate as a bad thing.
"If you wanted to improve your community and enhance your prosperity, it's easier to do if you have slow growth," he said.
He said it also enhances the ability to make a big difference with a single score.
For example, he said if Tucson were to add a new employer the size of Raytheon, which has more than 10,000 employees, that would make a major difference to the area. Total nonfarm employment in Pima County is about 370,000.
"You dump a company like that in Phoenix and it gets swallowed up with Joe Shmoe's Remodeling Shop and this, that and the other thing," Rex explained, with 1.8 million jobs in the Phoenix metro area. "Even though you brought in several thousand good jobs, it had an almost imperceptible impact on the overall numbers."
That conclusion about the slow job growth for the near future for everything outside the Phoenix metro area reflects what has been predicted by economist Aruna Murthy of the state Department of Administration.
She is forecasting a 2.3 percent jump in employment in the Phoenix area for the balance of this year and 2.4 percent in 2014.
By contrast, Murthy figures Pima County and the rest of the state will see job growth of just 0.8 percent this year. That figure will hit 1.1 percent for Pima County in 2014.
On StarNet: See an interactive chart of the population changes of incorporated cities and towns at azstarnet.com/multimedia
By the numbers
Largest Population Total 2012
cities change, 2011-12 population
Phoenix 1.7% 1,488,750
Tucson 0.2% 524,295
Mesa 1.7% 452,084
Chandler 2.5% 245,628
Glendale 1.5% 232,143
Scottsdale 1.7% 223,514
Gilbert 3.4% 221,140
"It's kind of a chicken-and-egg question of what comes first: population or employment."
Marshall Vest, economist with UA's Eller College of Management
Population change 2011 to 2012
Fastest Population growing change
S. Arizona change
Sierra Vista 0.5%
South Tucson 0.5%
Oro Valley 0.4%
Huachuca City -1.8%