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Wayne County’s population drop last year was its smallest in two decades, a period over which it often led the nation in decline, a Detroit News analysis of census estimates shows.

Michigan’s largest county, home to Detroit, lost about 3,000 residents as of July 2017, according to yearly estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

While still posting the nation’s ninth largest decline, Wayne lost significantly fewer people than the home counties of the Rust Belt and Midwest cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Even Hawaii’s Honolulu County had a bigger decline.

Experts say the slowing slide can be attributed to fewer people moving out. The losses are small compared to drops from the recent past, especially the decline of nearly 36,000 residents in 2008.

The estimates buttress the hope that Detroit’s post-bankruptcy resurgence will stop or even reverse a decades-long exodus that has seen Wayne County’s population fall from a high of 2.66 million in 1970 to 1.75 million last year.

“That is a good thing that Wayne County seems to be bottoming out,” said Kurt Metzger, a demographer and director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit. “There’s a consistent slowing of the population losses.”

Births, deaths and international immigration stayed steady last year, according to the data. Wayne County’s loss in 2016 was 5,500, which ranked third nationally.

Meanwhile, the six-county Detroit metropolitan area grew by 7,133 residents overall and remains at about 4.3 million people. That makes it the nation’s 14th largest region, ahead of fast-growing Seattle, which has 3.9 million people but grew by 64,000 last year alone.

“It’s good to see that population in southeast Michigan continues to grow after the great recession,” Xuan Liu, manager of research and data analysis for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, wrote in an email. “The region had one of the largest population gains in recent years.

The nation’s biggest population gains were in the south and west again last year. The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metro area grew by 146,238 people to 7.4 million, marking the nation’s largest regional gain, and Phoenix’s home county of Maricopa had the largest increase among all counties.

Job growth in Michigan and the stabilization of the auto industry may be part of why Wayne County and Metro Detroit are faring better than some Midwest counterparts, said Reynolds Farley, a research professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center.

“The health of the auto industry ... that is part of the advantage that Detroit has right now,” Farley said.

Wayne County’s unemployment rate was 5.4 percent in 2017, compared to 16.2 percent in 2009, according to the state’s Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives. The economic collapse led to bankruptcy filings by General Motors Corp. and Chrysler, and Detroit followed with the largest municipal bankruptcy in 2013.

“This data is welcome news and it shows that Wayne County and Detroit are in the best place they’ve been in a long time,” Jim Martinez, a spokesman for Wayne County Executive Warren Evans wrote in an email. “... I’m betting if we get some things right, including regional transit, we’ll see those numbers improve even more.”

As welcome as a flattening of Wayne County’s losses may be, other Midwest areas, such as Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio, are seeing significant growth, noted William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution. The Indianapolis area grew by 23,002 residents last year and Columbus’ statistical area rose by 31,748, according to the estimates.

“I see that pattern in other places, a sort of bounce back from the recession,” Frey said.

Wayne County’s 2017 population decline, its smallest loss since 1997, could foreshadow a similar trend for Detroit when city population estimates are released this spring.

In 2016, the city’s population loss slowed to its lowest pace in decades. Mayor Mike Duggan, now in his second term, had pledged to grow residents by the end of his first term.

Elsewhere in Michigan, Kent County had the state’s largest population increase, followed by Oakland and Macomb. Others continued to see declines, including Flint’s Genesee County, dropping 1,222 or 0.3 percent. In 2016, its population fell 1,642 or 0.4 percent.

“Folks are leaving and they’ve left every year,” Metzger said. “(Genesee) hasn’t seen the drop off that Wayne has.”

Michigan’s population increased by 28,866 residents, or 0.3 percent, to 9,962,311, as of July 2017, according to numbers released in December. That marked six straight years of growth for the state and its largest jump since 2001.

cmacdonald@detroitnews.com

Michigan counties that gained and lost in 2017

County

Pop. estimate 2016

Pop. estimate 2017

Pop. change 2017

Pct. change

Kent

642,909

648,594

5,685

0.9

Oakland

1,245,762

1,250,836

5,074

0.4

Macomb

867,503

871,375

3,872

0.4

Ottawa

283,242

286,383

3,141

1.1

Washtenaw

364,752

367,627

2,875

0.8

Delta

36,225

35,965

-260

-0.7

Saginaw

192,285

191,934

-351

-0.2

Tuscola

53,235

52,764

-471

-0.9

Genesee

408,607

407,385

-1,222

-0.3

Wayne

1,756,598

1,753,616

-2,982

-0.2

Top 10 counties with largest population decreases 2016-’17

County

2017 Population

2016 Population

Change

Pct. Change

Cook County, Ill.

5,211,263

5,231,356

-20,093

-0.4

Baltimore city, Md.

611,648

616,958

-5,310

-0.9

Cuyahoga Co., Ohio

1,248,514

1,253,454

-4,940

-0.4

St. Louis city, Mo.

308,626

313,144

-4,518

-1.4

Allegheny County, Pa.

1,223,048

1,227,553

-4,505

-0.4

Honolulu Co., Hawaii

988,650

992,761

-4,111

-0.4

Milwaukee Co., Wis.

952,085

955,369

-3,284

-0.3

Anchorage, Alaska

294,356

297,376

-3,020

-1.0

Wayne County

1,753,616

1,756,598

-2,982

-0.2

Kanawha Co., W. Va.

183,293

186,097

-2,804

-1.5

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