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April 18, 2014

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GROWTH:

Vacant homes, fewer people. This is Vegas?

For all the numbers that define Clark County and its economic woes, this one may be the most startling:

Clark County, for years the fastest-growing area in the country, has shrunk in population by at least one measure: the growing number of empty residences.

The county’s most recent population estimate, in July, shows a loss of about 10,000 people since its last estimate, in July 2007.

The estimate is based on the number of vacant homes, condos and apartments in the county. Because residents displaced by foreclosures might have moved in with others, the population drop may not be as dramatic as estimated.

Undisputed, however, is the exodus from Clark County of workers in the homebuilding industry over the past

1 1/2 years.

The last major population drop occurred in the late 1920s, when the mining industry soured.

“It is a real important reflection of the breadth and depth of the recession we are seeing today,” said John Restrepo, an economist and principal at Restrepo Consulting Group. “Clark County has been one of the fastest-growing counties in the country for 20 years, and now we are not seeing growth.”

Clark County estimates this year’s population on July 1 was 1,986,146, down from 1,996,542 on July 1, 2007.

The decline came after 10 straight years of population increases averaging more than 60,000 and after Clark County officials boasted last fall that the county’s population had surpassed 2 million.

The Las Vegas metropolitan area was the fastest growing, by percentage, in the United States during the 1990s, and ranked fifth fastest growing from 2000 to 2005.

A reversal of the longtime growth trend is yet another shock to the foundation of the Las Vegas economy, analysts said.

Experts have long thought the lure of jobs fueled by the regular addition of giant Strip resorts and increasingly luxurious casinos in the locals market would ensure continuous growth.

In the past year, Palazzo opened on the Strip and the Eastside Cannery opened on Boulder Highway. Encore at Wynn Las Vegas is slated to open next month.

Yet the addition of more than 10,000 jobs was more than offset by the recession, sharply rising unemployment and a stagnant homebuilding industry.

For the number crunchers who have spent years studying the rapid rate of Clark County population growth, the decline is a jolt to the system.

“It tells us that we are much more connected to the national economy than people have thought in the past,” said Jon Wardlaw, the county assistant planning manager and demographer.

Clark County calculates its population based on the number of households and their occupancy rate. Wardlaw said the housing vacancy rate rose from 4.5 percent to 7 percent.

“There are more houses and apartments with nobody in them,” Wardlaw said. “They are either moving away or in with relatives, or combining households with someone.”

State Demographer Jeff Hardcastle said he is poring over data to come up with his own population estimate for Clark County.

Jeremy Aguero, a principal at Applied Analysis, said the numbers may not so much suggest the county’s population is shrinking as much as indicate a correction of previous overestimates.

“I don’t think we have lost population as much as we didn’t have as much as we thought we did in 2006 and 2007,” Aguero said.

Experts said the biggest culprit for any drop in population is the loss of about 10,000 construction jobs in the past year. Casinos have also been trimming jobs. The jobless rate rose to 7.3 percent in September.

A version of this story appeared in this week’s In Business Las Vegas, a sister publication of the Sun.

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