New census data shed light on the population growth El Paso County has experienced in recent years, which local officials hailed as a testament to the area's affordability, geographic appeal and flourishing economy.
From 2015 to 2016, El Paso County's population increased by an estimated 13,994 people, the largest increase seen that year by any of the state's 64 counties, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday. The growth was an estimated 2.1 percent increase from the previous year, making it the highest jump the county has seen in at least six years.
The area's relatively high quality of life, paired with low housing prices compared with the Denver metropolitan area, have helped to attract newcomers, said area economist Tom Binnings.
"Our location, our climate, the incredible outdoors - naturally, people want to live here," said Binnings, a senior partner for Summit Economics. "And when we have jobs available on top of that, people can justify living here."
In 2016, the county's population was estimated to be 688,284, making it the second-largest county in the state. From 2010-2014, it was the largest, before it was eclipsed by Denver County two years ago. But last year, El Paso County grew at a faster rate than Denver. according to the census data.
Colorado officials predict El Paso County's population will, once again, catch up to Denver County's population by 2021, said Cindy DeGroen, a state demographer.
Most of the growth from 2015 to 2016 comes from people moving into the county rather than natural increases, such as more individuals being born than dying. The Census Bureau estimates that 8,739 people moved in from outside the county. Of those newcomers, almost all moved to El Paso County from within the United States.
Binnings suspects that people moving from the Denver area account for at least some of the growth, especially in northern El Paso County, where residents can commute north to the hub for work. Data from the state demographer's office show that people tend to leave Denver after age 35, and the Colorado Springs area offers an option for a new home that is close by, Binnings said.
The county's military installations also play a role, he said. Those stationed at local posts often choose to stick around when their service is up. Retirees, veterans or otherwise, also flock to the area.
He added that the uptick in population is enough of a milestone to catch the attention of businesses elsewhere, from retailers to home builders.
The local housing market is already reaping the benefits, according to County Assessor Steve Schleiker.
New construction of single-family homes is up across the county. Falcon, Monument and Fountain are hot spots for new residences, he said.
Schleiker's office is about to finish complete reappraisals of El Paso County's more than 270,000 properties. Notices of tax value will be mailed out in May. As of Tuesday morning, the local market for single-family homes was valued at $56.8 billion, up from $49.9 billion in 2016, he said.
Area home builders were not surprised by the population increase, which they said was consistent with increasingly booming business.
Vantage Homes, which has homes for sale in northeast Colorado Springs neighborhoods including The Farm and Cordera, is on track to build 30 percent more homes in 2017 than it did in 2016, said Crystal Johnston, marketing manager for the company.
"We're seeing that high demand," she said. "Every weekend seems to be a fairly busy weekend for us, which is great."
Mark Long, president of the Housing & Building Association of Colorado Springs, estimated that the number of homes built in 2016 was the highest it had been in about a decade.
"Now we're really on a path of sustainable growth," said Long, owner of Vanguard Homes. "The economy is just getting better - no question about it."
Numbers support his statement. According to the latest edition of the Quality of Life Indicators Report, released March 2 by the Pikes Peak United Way, unemployment decreased significantly between March 2011 and last October, from 10 percent to 3.5 percent. The report also pointed to falling crime rates and expanding parks and open spaces as reasons why the region is a good place to live.
While the Census Bureau's recent data is good news for El Paso County, it comes with challenges for local governments, including ensuring adequate access to transportation and affordable housing for a growing number of residents, said Darryl Glenn, president of the Board of County Commissioners.
"What we have to do is be responsible in making sure that our infrastructure doesn't suffer because of what's happening in our community," Glenn said. "We have a long list of issues that we still must address when you're thinking about the things that are happening in a growing community."
EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the unemployment rate in El Paso County as the employment rate. The unemployment rate, not the employment rate, fell from 10 percent to 3.5 percent from March 2011 to last October.