Baltimore's population slipped a tenth of one percent, according to the latest Census estimate, showing just how far there is to go toward Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's signature goal of attracting 10,000 new families to Baltimore over the course of a decade.
The new estimate released Thursday shows a small decline of 611 people to 622,793 people for the year ended June 30, 2014. The dip followed two years of growth that added about 2,500 people to the 620,889 living here in July 2011, the summer before she set the goal.
In the year ended last June, the city drew more than 2,360 people from abroad, including immigrants, students and overseas military, but those and other new faces failed to make up for the more than 5,310 people moving out.
The city needs to figure out who is leaving and why, said Seema Iyer, associate director of the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute. Still, a 600-person drop isn't serious, after decades of decline and positive revisions in the previous two years, she said.
"What it's telling us is that the population is holding steady, which is pretty good news for Baltimore," she said.
Baltimore was the nation's sixth largest city in 1960, with around 940,000 people. Over the next four decades, it lost nearly a third of its population.
The bleeding appeared to stop in recent years, but recovery remains slow. The Maryland Department of Planning does not expect the city's population to top 650,000 again until 2030 and projects the city's growth rate will continue to lag other places in the state.
That will make it difficult for the mayor to reach her 10,000-family target, said Mark Goldstein, an economist for the Maryland Department of Planning. Aides at the time said that represented about 22,000 people.
"It's possible that the city will continue to grow slowly during the rest of the decade," he said. "I don't think it's likely it will have the growth of that magnitude that the mayor is talking about."
In a statement, Rawlings-Blake touted the growth so far and said she expects to see the most recent figure revised positively, as the Census has done in the last two years.
"There's no doubt that, despite this year's modest blip, we are moving in the right direction," she said. "We would expect that — like in past years — as the Census Bureau refines its data, the final population number for Baltimore City will ultimately be adjusted to reflect the growth that all of us see every day."
Statewide, the population increased by 0.6 percent to 5.98 million in the 2014 estimate, just shy of the 0.7 percent national average.
The Baltimore metro area increased about 0.4 percent, to roughly 2.79 million people, with Howard County adding about 4,350 people, a population increase of 1.4 percent — the fastest in the state.
The Washington suburbs of Prince George's, Montgomery and even Charles counties also experienced strong growth rates last year, while Somerset, Garrett and Talbot counties saw population declines.
Since the recession, the state's population growth has occurred away from the rural and exurban areas, Goldstein said.
"Before the Great Recession, you had a lot more mobility and growth was much more dispersed," he said.
The new figures show exurbs and metro areas in the Sunbelt drawing more people nationwide, with pre-recession patterns returning as the national labor market rebounds, said Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.
"What's happened in a lot of places … they've kind of been holding onto people who might have been moving to the Sunbelt under better conditions and now that's kind of easing up," he said. "It's a broader movement. … The water faucet is starting to flow again."
While some cities have experienced growth, it's still too soon to say if there are broader trends that favor urban living, Frey said.
"A lot of that has to do with this millennial population being stuck in place," he said. "There certainly could be more preference for living in the city, but it's hard to disentangle that from the economic funk these people have been in for a while."
Daraius Irani, chief economist of Towson University's Regional and Economic Studies Institute, said he is interested to learn more about the age of those leaving the city, speculating that families in search of a bigger house or stronger public school system may decide to move.
He also pointed to high-profile infrastructure problems, such as the water main breaks this winter and the street collapse in Charles Village last year as reasons for the loss.
Still, he added, "600 people … It's as close to zero as anything."
Live Baltimore, a nonprofit focused on marketing city living, recently launched a new program called "Ways to Stay," which among other things, has organized information for families about schools, an effort to keep young people in the city as they age. They also have a person coordinating efforts with employers who might be recruiting workers from elsewhere.
Executive director Steven Gondol said he was "a bit surprised" to learn of a decline, given the new homes his team has tracked being built, rehabbed and occupied.
"On a numerical basis it is disappointing to us," he said. "Kind of what we see and feel — we are still positive about that … On a quality of life basis, we're seeing year-over-year improvement."
Larry Nelson and his wife moved to a rental home in Union Square in 2012 after 30 years in Annapolis, drawn by city life and the relative affordability of housing. Since then, he said, he's seen more people move in and stores open up. Now they're planning to purchase in the area.
"We love it. … Baltimore has a dynamite pulse," said Nelson, 72. "It's the only community I've ever spoken to my neighbors."
Census estimates of the number of households — a different data set — in Baltimore show increases, said Iyer, who is working on a study of the data, which does not yet include 2014 numbers.
But appeal to empty-nesters and millenials means the city tends to have a smaller household size than a family with children. That can mean less when it comes to a person count, analysts said.
Mark Sissman, president of Healthy Neighborhoods Inc., which does residential development throughout the city, said things are improving, it just takes time
"I think the mayor deserves credit for setting out a bold goal," he said. "I don't think leaders here ought to overreact as to whether we're up or down by 600 people. … It's kind of like a baseball season. It's a long season. It's not one game."