By MICHAEL KITCH, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — After four decades of steady growth, the population of Belknap County has come to a standstill. Between 2010 and 2015 the population of Belknap County grew by just 311 people, from 60,088 to 60,399, as numbers in two of its 11 municipalities shrank and in only one increased by more than double digits, according to the most recent estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The county population grew at its fastest pace between 1970 and 1980 when it added 10,500 residents, an increase of 32.5 percent, as numbers in eight of the 10 towns in the county jumped by more than 50 percent. The county population increased by more than 6,000 in each the next two decades then rose by 4,763 between 2000 and 2010 before grinding to halt.
Among the 10 towns, the estimated population during the past five years increased the most in New Hampton, which added 101 people, followed by increases of 62 in Meredith, 20 in Alton, 16 in Gilford, 12 in Barnstead, 11 in Sanbornton, 6 in Tilton, and 1 in Gilmanton while the population fell by 37 in Belmont and 84 in Center Harbor. In Laconia the population rose by 56.
For more than half a century the city of Laconia has been an outlier. The population of the city has grown by a mere 719 people, from 15,288 in 1960 to 16,007 in 2015. Between 1970 and 1980, when the population of the county grew by a third, the city's population increased just 5 percent.
As population growth has stalled, the population of the county has aged. The median age of 46.1 years — 45.3 for men and 46.8 for women — is the third highest among the 10 counties in the state, trailing Carroll County at 50.3 years and Coos County at 48.1 years.
During the past decade the workforce in Belknap County has also shrunk slightly, from an estimated 31,920 in 2005 to 31,480 in 2015. In the city of Laconia, where the work force has decreased by nearly 4 percent, from 8,267 to 7,946, and in six of the 10 towns there are fewer people working or seeking work than there were 10 years ago.
In the same period, annual average covered employment, that is jobs covered by unemployment insurance, in goods producing industries in Belknap County has decreased by 1,870, or 34 percent, while average weekly wages have risen 30 percent, from $819 to $1,066. Employment in service industries has grown less than three percent, from 17,424 to 17,859, while average weekly wages have risen from $576 to $774, or by 24 percent. Altogether employment in the private sector has fallen from 22,891 to 21,457, or six percent, and average weekly wages have risen 24 percent from $624 to $774. Meanwhile, government (federal, state and local) employment in the county grew from 4,049 to 4,128 and average weekly wages increased from $636 to $777. or by 22 percent.
In Laconia, between 2004 and 2014 annual average covered employment in the private sector has shrunk by 12 percent, from 9,162 to 8,056 , as employment in goods producing industries decreased from 2,515 to 1,776 and in service industries from 6,647 to 6,280, At the same time, average weekly wages in goods producing industries rose 21 percent, from $786 to $957, and in service industries 38 percent, from $599 to $830. Government employment in the city also decreased, from 1,532 to 1,271, a drop of 17 percent, while average weekly wages rose about 9 percent, from $763 to $830.
The update of demographic and economic data from the Census Bureau confirms the slow growth and rapid aging of the population that while common throughout most of the state has been especially marked in the northernmost counties and Lakes Region.