Modest population growth trend thought troubling sign for Lakes Region economy

LACONIA — The population growth that has driven growth and prosperity throughout much of the Lakes Region since 1970 slowed markedly during the last decade and shows scant sign of accelerating soon.

Demographic data compiled and presented by the Lakes Region Planning Commission in the course of updating its Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the region offers a pattern of slackening in-migration and rapid aging that threaten to slow population growth in the years ahead. Unless mitigated, these trends will weigh on the development of the work force needed for a dynamic economy.

As defined by the commission, the Lakes Region includes the 11 municipalities of Belknap County, eight towns in Carroll County (Effingham, Freedom, Moultonborough, Ossipee, Sandwich, Tamworth, Tuftonboro and Wolfeboro), six towns in Grafton County (Alexandria, Ashland, Bridgewater, Bristol, Hebron and Holderness) and five municipalities in Merrimack County (Andover, Danbury, Franklin, Hill and Northfield).

In the 70 years between 1900 and 1970 the population of the 30 municipalities in the Lakes Region grew by just 16,092 — slightly more than the current population of Laconia — from 44,369 to 60,461. By contrast, in the 40 years since 1970 the population has risen by 52,272, an increase of 87-percent, from 60,461 to 112, 735. However, 88-percent of this population growth — 45,967 people — occurred between 1970 and 2000, when in successive decades the population increased by 29 percent, 18 percent and 16 percent.

From 2000 to 2010, the population added only 6,307 people to grow at a pace of 6 percent. Nearly half this increase occurred in just four towns — Alton, Barnstead, Belmont and Gilmanton — which together added 2,812 residents, 45 percent of the increase in the entire region. These towns are within reach of centers of employment: Alton and Barnstead fall within the orbit of Rochester. Dover and Somerswoth and Belmont and Gilmanton of Concord.

In a third of the 30 municipalities the pace of growth was less than 6 percent, lagging the average for the entire region. The two cities in the region — Laconia and Franklin — represented 26-percent of the regional population in 1990, but from 2000 to 2010 the first shrank and the second stagnated and their share of the regional population fell to 22-percent.

In an aging state, the Lakes Region is aging relatively rapidly. In New Hampshire the median age rose from 37.1 years in 2000 to 41.1 years in 2010, an increase of 11-percent. Only three of the 30 municipalities in the Lakes Region — Barnstead, Franklin and Northfield — posted median ages below the state average while the percentage increase in the median age reached double digits in 19 of the 30 municipalities in the region. The median age in all four counties in the Lakes Region topped the state median age, led by Carroll County at 48.3 years and followed by Belknap County at 44.7 years, Grafton County at 41.2 years and Merrimack County at 41.4 years.

The aging of the population is highlighted by the increase in those over 65. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of senior citizens rose by 20 percent, from 147,970 to 178,268, and from 12 percent to 13 percent of the total population. In the Lakes Region the numbers climbed 17 percent, from 16,838 to 19,740, to 17 percent of the regional population. With the exception of Laconia, Franklin, Moultonborough and Sandwich the percentage increase in the number of senior citizens reached double digits in all the municipalities in the Lakes Region.

With the last members of the "Baby Boom" generation, which consists of those born between 1946 and 1964, turning 65 in 2029, the aging process will be magnified and prolonged without an increase in either the rate of birth or pace of in-migration.

Meanwhile, after peaking at more than 61,000 in 2008 the labor force in the Lakes Region fell to about 59,000 in 2011, below where it stood in 2002. Likewise, the number of those employed peaked at 59,000 in 2008 before dropping to less than 56,000 in 2011, more than 1,000 fewer than were working in 2002.

The employment figures reflect the impact of the recession. Between 2005 and 2010, private employment fell by 3,196 jobs, 2,005 of them in the manufacturing sector where employment shrank by 32-percent., from 6,199 to 4,194 jobs. Altogether total employment in the region decreased by 7 percent between 2005 and 2010.