New population projections suggest Elkhart County will rapidly grow over the next three decades, but St. Joseph County will remain nearly stagnant.
St. Joseph — the fifth largest county in Indiana — had a census population estimate of 270,400 for 2017, up 800 residents from 2016. But its projected population for 2050 is 270,600, according to a study by the Indiana Business Research Center.
Elkhart — the sixth largest county in the state — had a population of 205,300 for 2017, up 1,200 residents from 2016. Population growth is projected to remain steady in the coming decades, with the number climbing to 245,200 by 2050.
So why do population forecasts for St. Joseph and Elkhart counties vary so widely?
In Elkhart County, projections suggest millennials — defined by the Pew Research Center as those born between 1981 and 1996 — and Generation Xers — those born between 1965 and 1980 — will play a key role in driving growth.
For example, a millennial born in 1985 — now 33 years old — will be a 65-year-old senior in 2050. And from 2015 to 2050, projections suggest seniors ages 65 and up in Elkhart County will climb from 27,800 to 48,500. That suggests the county will enjoy a large boost from millennials and Generation Xers.
In St. Joseph County, projections suggest that from 2015 to 2050, the number of seniors will climb from 39,200 to 56,800. But that boost will be offset by decreases in other age groups. Over the same period, for example, the number of adults aged 25 to 64 is projected to drop from 134,800 to 121,700.
Matt Kinghorn, a senior demographer for the Indiana Business Research Center, said projections were based on population statistics over the past 15 years. Data on migration trends, along with birth and death rates, were factored in.
In explaining the disparity in population projections for St. Joseph and Elkhart counties, Kinghorn described Elkhart as an “emerging county” that has seen rapid growth in recent decades. From 2000 to 2017, Elkhart’s population climbed by 12 percent; and over that period, it was the 16th fastest-growing county in the state.
“St. Joseph is a mature county whose population peaked in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said. “Elkhart has been more of an emerging county over the last two or three decades, and I think you’ll see that trend moving forward.”
In comparing the two counties, Kinghorn added that Elkhart has “higher fertility rates, partly due to the Amish and Hispanic populations. They tend to have higher fertility rates than the population in general and tend to be younger populations.”
Elkhart County Commissioner President Mike Yoder said one of the county’s “biggest challenges” will be building new housing to meet population demands.
But, “we’re encouraged with the amount of new housing we’re seeing in cities and towns,” he said.
Helping the cause will be the city of Elkhart’s proposed “River District,” which calls for building hundreds of housing units downtown in the coming years to attract millennials and baby boomers.
Jeff Rea, president and CEO of the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce, said that while he “wasn’t surprised” by St. Joseph County’s population projections, “we really need to make sure they don’t come true.”
He said economic development efforts are underway to “create an atmosphere to grow,” citing new housing projects in the cities of South Bend and Mishawaka.
In referring to those projects, Rea said, “What the data doesn’t take into account is what is happening now … When you think of the housing explosion in the two downtowns, you start to think there are factors that are going to change those (population) numbers in the coming years.”
For St. Joseph County to remain eligible to collect its 6 percent hotel-motel tax on rooms, its population needs to stay below 300,000, according to a state law. But projections suggest the county will likely not need to worry about exceeding that threshold.
The state’s population, meanwhile, is projected to climb from 2015 to 2050 by 666,000 residents to 7.3 million. That is a 10 percent increase.
“There are going to be wide differences in population trends around the state,” Kinghorn said. “Growth is going to be driven by metro areas … But on the flip side, there are large swaths of the state that are going to see decreases and young adults move away.”
-Elkhart County To Outpace St. Joseph In Coming Decades