March 23, 2011 at 1:00 am

Oakland County: Growth hopscotches; diversity gains

Rich Hopcroft of Royal Oak says: “I’ve started looking at moving my business to Chicago or Dallas or Atlanta.” He owns a Troy-based call center. (Charles V. Tines / The Detroit News)

Detroit's loss is Oakland County's gain, as more residents moved in than out, some leaving densely populated cities in the county for more rural areas and increasing diversity, according to U.S. census figures released Tuesday.

"We took a beating because of the implosion of the auto industry," County Executive L. Brooks Patterson said. "But we offer a good quality of life with good schools, good employment and thriving downtowns. Frankly, it's a good place to live, work and raise a family."

Southeastern suburbs such as Hazel Park, Ferndale, Southfield and Royal Oak saw their populations drop in the past 10 years by about 5 percent to 13 percent.

Many of those who left likely went looking for opportunities outside the state or moved in with family, real estate agent Pat Teeley said, in reaction to the economic downturn and housing bust.

Royal Oak resident Rich Hopcroft believes some of his neighbors "strategically defaulted" on their mortgages, making it difficult for him to sell his home.

Still, he plans to leave the state and head south or west to find a better quality of life.

"I've started looking at moving my business to Chicago or Dallas or Atlanta," said Hopcroft, 39, who owns a call center in Troy. "There's a reason why those places are so dense. There's more diverse industry, more robust business and residential communities, better transportation and more world-class entertainment."

But some northern and western townships grew as much as 32 percent, leaving the county with 8,206 more residents than in the 2000 census figures.

"Some call it sprawl, I call it natural migration," Patterson said.

Many people are buying more house for less money farther out in the county, Teeley said, and "cute little downtown areas and a country feel" are attractive.

Meanwhile, the county's population grew more diverse. The combined Asian, black and Hispanic populations rose sharply to about 272,000, going from 16.5 percent to 22.6 percent of the total population. The number of white residents dropped by 68,354 from more than 1 million to 903,398, 75.1 percent of the total.

"We welcome diversity," Patterson said. "We consider it a strength. The schools are outstanding and people want to come here to get a good education for their kids."

Pontiac and Southfield bid goodbye to the most residents of any city, township or village in the county. Pontiac fell 10.3 percent, or 6,822 people, and Southfield lost nearly 8.4 percent, or 6,557. Nearly 1 in 5 housing units is vacant in Pontiac. In Southfield, the rate is 12 percent.

"For sale" signs dot entire sections of Hazel Park, where the population dropped 10 percent and nearly 13 percent of the housing units are vacant.

Neighboring cities, including Berkley, Ferndale, Lathrup Village, Madison Heights and Royal Oak, all experienced population declines from about 4 percent to nearly 10 percent.

Meanwhile, Oakland and Oxford townships in the northern part of the county grew about 28 percent to 16,779 and 20,526, respectively.

In the southwestern part of the county, Lyon Township's population rose nearly 32 percent from 11,041 to 14,545.

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