Baltimore, coming off six decades of population decline, grew by 1,100 residents in 12 months, according to government estimates released Thursday.
"It's such amazing news. … It's huge psychologically," said Seema D. Iyer, a former research chief for the city's planning department now with the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute.
For years, the U.S. Census Bureau's annual calculation delivered to the city disappointing news of a falling population, but now it seems to be turning around.
The increase, attributed to growing international migration and fewer people abandoning the city, is the second census estimate since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake announced at her inauguration in December 2011 that her main goal is to increase the city's population by "10,000 families" within a decade. The earlier estimate showed a dip in population.
The bureau estimated there were 621,342 people in Baltimore on July 1, 2012, up 0.2 percent from a year earlier. Immigration to Baltimore increased at the same time as the number of people leaving the city went down, the estimate shows. Baltimore's population peaked at nearly 950,000 in 1950.
Rawlings-Blake called the new census number "certainly a step in the right direction."
Between July 2011 and July 2012 about 3,000 people left the city and about 2,000 moved to Baltimore from abroad, according to the estimates. The natural increase in population (births minus deaths) was 2,300.
A year earlier, during the period, the census estimated that nearly 5,000 people moved out of Baltimore while only 1,300 immigrants moved in. The natural increase was 2,500.
The report also found population gains in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties and small declines in the state's more rural counties.
Rawlings-Blake has said she wants to improve city services to retain residents — and that Baltimore is putting out the welcome mat to immigrants. Rawlings-Blake has been an outspoken advocate for immigrants' rights, including supporting the Dream Act and issuing an executive order to protect immigrants from discrimination by city agencies.
Although the increase in residents is most likely due to factors beyond Baltimore officials' control, it is becoming clear that Rawlings-Blake's campaign for new residents has not gone unnoticed.
"Calls came in from everywhere after the mayor talked about how people are welcome here in Baltimore City," said Jermin Laviera, who has worked for almost 30 years at Catholic Charities of Baltimore's Esperanza Center in Fells Point.
But it wasn't until Monday, when a man walked into the center with a clipping from a Colombian newspaper that extolled Baltimore's virtues that Laviera realized the extent to which Baltimore is being invoked as a landing pad among potential emigres. The article was published in the Colombian newspaper Al Dia in August.
"Baltimore is a thriving, modern and cosmopolitan city of open doors for immigrants who will work," reads a caption below a photo of the Inner Harbor. There's a photo of Rawlings-Blake, too, with a quote from her saying the city is welcoming immigrants.
Gabriela Villafana-Cardoso, 25, moved to Baltimore from Mexico in December. She and her husband decided to come to Baltimore after being carjacked at gunpoint and because he was looking for work, she said.
"The news on the Internet said immigrants are welcome in Baltimore. … So then we said, 'Let's go to Baltimore,'" said Villafana-Cardoso, who has a bachelor's degree in communication.
She's volunteering at Esperanza Center to improve her English so she can apply for jobs in social media, which she did for the government in Mexico. Her husband, who studied business administration in college but didn't finish, works at a Fells Point pizza parlor.
So far, she said, she likes Baltimore. And while Baltimore has its own crime problems, she said it's safer than where they were and there are employment opportunities.
"The numbers are surprising and encouraging," said Catalina Rodriguez, the Hispanic affairs liaison in the Mayor's Office of Neighborhoods, of the one-year 35 percent increase in international migration. "It just tells us that we need to continue to do what we're doing. … The better their life is here in Baltimore, the more likely they are to have friends and family come here."
Although immigrants are the primary driver of last year's population increase, courting foreign-born people is not the focus of her plan, Rawlings-Blake said.
"This is a population growth and retention strategy," the mayor said. Lowering property taxes and improving the school system are aspects of keeping people who live here satisfied, she said.
With the annual exodus of people from the city dropping by 2,000 in the new estimate, retention seems to be improving. Whether Baltimore's policies and laws have much to do with retention, and the immigrant influx, is debatable.
There is a larger factor— the improving economy — that likely controlled Baltimore's growth last year, said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"Everywhere shows gains in immigration," Frey said of the new Census Bureau estimates. That's because the economy's looking up, so more immigrants think they will be able to find jobs, he said.
And resident retention has improved for cities because mobility was reduced, he said. People were less willing to commute during the economic downturn, so not as many people were moving to the suburbs, he said.
Mark Goldstein, an economist with the Maryland Planning Department who studies the state's population changes, said the new data show that counties farther from urban centers are losing people while closer-in counties are gaining.
"Growth is much more concentrated," Goldstein said. From the housing boom period of the mid-2000s, when people were moving farther away from cities, the trends have "almost completely reversed," he said.
Garrett and Allegany counties, in Western Maryland, four counties on the Eastern Shore and Carroll County all lost small numbers of people from July 2011 to July 2012, according to the Census Bureau estimates. Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties, meanwhile, each gained more than 5,000 residents.
Montgomery County, close to Washington, broke the 1 million resident mark. The Census Bureau estimates that it gained 13,000 people during the 12-month period.
Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he's pleased that Baltimore is finally on the positive side of the ledger like the suburban counties. But he's long believed that Baltimore's population count has been low, he said.
"I would say that we gained more than that," Young said. Like Rawlings-Blake, other civic leaders and some demographers in the region, Young thinks the 2010 Census count, on which the Census Bureau's annual population estimates are based, was too low.
"People really did not fill out that census," Young said.
Baltimore officially challenged the 2010 Census count last year, submitting a record of nearly 16,000 households the city believes were missed in the tally. That could mean 30,000 people, give or take, were not counted and that the city didn't lose population from 2000 to 2010.
The city's challenge is still pending, said Tom Stosur, the city's planning director.
Last year, the state's Planning Department released projections of how long it will take Baltimore to regain the 30,000 people that the Census Bureau says the city lost between 2000 and 2010.
It won't be until 2040, the planning department estimates, that the city's population will be back above 650,000, where it was 13 years ago.