- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The population of St. Mary’s County continues an upward march that began about 70 years ago, as the U.S. Census Bureau counted 109,633 people living here in 2013.
With a population growth rate of 4.3 percent since 2010, St. Mary’s is tied with Charles County as the third-fastest growing county in Maryland during that time.
By 2013, Charles County’s population had reached 152,864. Calvert County grew by 2 percent since 2010, hitting a population of 90,484 last year.
Southern Maryland was the fastest-growing region of Maryland for 20 years, from the 1990 Census to the 2010 Census. The region grew another 3.7 percent from 2010 to 2013, just slightly slower than the suburban Washington region (Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties), which grew by 3.8 percent during that span, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.
In the latest population data, Howard County led the state in growth since 2010 at 6.1 percent, adding 17,495 people for a population of 304,580. Montgomery County grew 4.6 percent to 1,016,677 people last year and is the most populated county in the state.
Maryland grew by 2.7 percent during those three years to a new population of 5,928,814 in 2013.
Reviewing the latest population numbers, Robin Finnacom, acting director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Economic and Community Development, said of the county’s recent growth, “It’s somewhat modest growth from the pace we’ve seen since the 1970s, and we continue to be one of the fastest-growing counties in the state of Maryland.”
A steadily climbing population shows St. Mary’s is still attracting a young workforce, she said, which is “always good for business and the Navy’s growth and we want to attract those workers. Having a youthful workforce is enviable,” she said.
“It’s a great indicator of success,” Commissioner Todd Morgan (R) said of the latest population figure of St. Mary’s.
Patuxent River Naval Air Station, which kicked off the perpetual growth cycle in St. Mary’s when it opened in 1943, accounts for some 22,000 jobs today and makes up between 75 and 80 percent of the local economy.
But reductions in Pentagon spending plans are a warning that St. Mary’s can’t solely rely on federal defense spending. “We have to diversify this economy out,” Morgan said, and several studies and initiatives are underway to plot that new economic course.
“Our No. 1 priority has to be naval aviation,” he said. But in addition, “we’re sitting on a gold mine” to attract opportunities outside of the base’s gates as well, he said.
The county’s population doubled in less than 10 years after the Navy base opened. The population of 14,626 in 1940 swelled to 29,111 in 1950. St. Mary’s was isolated, rural and poor before the Navy arrived. The county’s population was stagnant for generations before 1940. That year’s population was actually fewer than the first Census in 1790, when 15,544 people were counted here.
As the Navy base was being built, federal dollars were used to rebuild schools, build new schools, build new housing, build a new jail, build a modern highway to Pax River and extend an old farmers railroad from Mechanicsville to the base.
The number of people in St. Mary’s again doubled between 1950 and 1980 when the population reached 59,895 as the Navy base continued to grow.
Then in 1991, the Pentagon announced that 2,250 defense jobs from Warminster, Pa., were to be relocated to Pax River by 1995. A 1995 round of base realignment and closures moved another 3,000 jobs from Crystal City, Va., to St. Mary’s.
The population of St. Mary’s went from 75,974 people in 1990 to 86,211 in 2000, a 14 percent change. In that decade, Calvert grew by 45 percent and Charles by 19.2 percent, making Southern Maryland the fastest-growing region in the state.
From 2000 to 2010, St. Mary’s population grew from 86,211 to 105,151, an increase of 22 percent, while Charles grew by 21.6 percent and Calvert by 19 percent.
Now, “we have to BRAC-proof Pax River,” Morgan said, referring to the federal base realignment and closure process. The next one is proposed in fiscal 2017. “I don’t think we can ever be complacent. Pax River will remain the economic engine, but diversification is a must,” he said.
And as the county continues to grow, the county government, Morgan said, is “able to satisfy many of the needs of the community.”
Brad Clements, St. Mary’s public schools deputy superintendent of schools and operations, said the student population has continued to steadily grow at about an average of 2 percent a year. There are 17,453 students enrolled in public schools in St. Mary’s this year, according to the Maryland State Department of Education.
To keep up with the growing population, a new elementary school is being built in Leonardtown. The $27 million Capt. Walter Francis Duke Elementary School is planned to open in the fall of 2015. A new $18 million addition to Evergreen Elementary School in California is scheduled for construction in May 2017. The new section adds room for an additional 366 students to Evergreen, which opened with room for 646 students in 2009 for $25 million.
“It’ll buy us some time,” Clements said, as the school system looks for land to build another new elementary school in the central or southern part of St. Mary’s.
While the county’s population continues to grow at a steady rate, the number of new building permits for homes has leveled off in recent years.
From July 2013 to February of this year, the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management issued 406 building permits for new homes, said Harry Knight, permits coordinator.
In recent years, the number of permits has ranged from 356 in fiscal 2009 to 641 last fiscal year, which included an apartment complex.
During the housing market boom, which ended in 2008, the number of permits issued ranged from a low of 726 in fiscal 2005 to a high of 1,433 the year before. “We had a lot of big housing projects” in fiscal 2004, Knight said. During the boom, the average number of new homes was 800, he said. “Now the new average is closer to 400.”
firstname.lastname@example.org Staff writer Jesse Yeatman contributed to this report.