San Juan County in top 10 for population decline

Nearly 13,000 people have moved away from county since 2011

Leigh Black Irvin
Nancy Eaves, an agent with Dimmick Realty, places a sign on a house located on North Wall Avenue in Farmington Thursday after a sale.
  • The county saw a population decline of more than 3,600 people, or 3.05 percent, over a year.
  • Cook County, Ill., which is where Chicago is located, topped the list at 0.41 percent.
  • Home sales in the area were up by more than 20 percent in February over a year earlier.

FARMINGTON — San Juan County is among the top 10 counties in the country for population decline, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released Wednesday, but that news was tempered by reports indicating that home sales in the county are on the rise.

The Census Bureau report, which compares the population in 2015 to the population a year later, ranks the county at No. 8 for population decline nationally. The report states that the county had a population of 115,079 as of July 1, 2016. On that date in 2015, San Juan County's population was 118,701, which is a decline of 3,622 people and 3.05 percent over the course of the year.

The report is based on the percentage of population decline, not on the total by which a county's population fell over the course of the year.

Statistics listed on the Census Bureau website in 2011 showed a San Juan County population of 128,063, meaning that over the course of five years, there has been a decline in population of 12,984 people.

Most of the counties on the list showing a greater decline than San Juan County had a much larger population, such as Cook County, Ill., of which Chicago is the county seat. Cook County, which took first place on the list, has a population of more than 5 million people and saw its population decline by 0.41 percent. Listed at No. 5 was Suffolk County, N.Y., which has a population of almost 1.5 million people and experienced a decline of 0.36 percent.

Despite the local decline, there appears to be an upward trend in home purchases in San Juan County and across the state, according to a news release from the Realtors Association of New Mexico.

"New Mexico's housing market is off to a great start this year, with 1,212 sales reported for February," association President Victoria Murphy stated in the release. "Thirteen reporting counties showed an increase in sales numbers from 2016."

San Juan County is one of these counties, with 61 home sales taking place in February of this year as opposed to 50 sales during the same month in 2016 (a chart listed on the San Juan County Board of Realtors' site shows that 47 homes were sold in February of 2016 and 66 sold in February 2017).

The Census Bureau numbers only go from July 1 to June 30 each year, so that data doesn't reflect events that have happened since that time that might be affecting the local climate and economy.

Stephen C. Foster is president-elect of the San Juan County Board of Realtors. Foster said he and fellow real estate agents sensed an upturn in the real estate market after the first of the year, which may be related to the changing political situation.

"We've seen an increase in sales and in the real estate business, in general," he said. "We can't put our finger on why, but I think with the change in the administration, there's a lot of hope for San Juan County. We're not necessarily looking for a boom, but we are hoping for stability."

Foster said he hopes a change in the laws and regulations pertaining to the oil and gas industry might lure companies back to the area.

"Farmington's done a great job of diversifying, also," he said. "The hospital has had a lot of growth, and I feel the sale of the (San Juan) mine by BHP Billiton to the Navajo Nation has had a positive impact on the economy. Conoco Phillips selling off their assets is also great news because they're not just walking away from it — whoever they sell it to will hopefully come in and expand the company."

Foster said home prices have remained stable, but he predicted that there will be some movement in interest rates before too long.

"It's a good time to buy, before the rates get higher," he said.

Concerning the reported decrease in the county's population, San Juan County CEO Kim Carpenter said it's important to examine other sources of information to get a full assessment of the local situation.

"I'm not optimistic that those (statistics in the report) are the actual numbers, because we have a lot of people still living in the county but working in other states," he said. "There's no question we've had a population decline, but we look at other factors such as how Realtors are doing, the number of U-Hauls (being rented), etc. We've been through a very difficult time, but I hope we can see an uptick before long."

Regarding home sales, Carpenter said his office regularly checks in with several of the larger real estate agencies to gauge the housing market, and he said these agencies have experienced near-record sales of late.

Broker Sam Todd owns the Farmington real estate company ReMax. Todd acknowledged that recent news such as PNM considering a closure of the San Juan Generating Station — as well as other developments that affect the local economy — have many potential buyers concerned. He remains optimistic, however, that the economic situation will even out.

"I do know that I saw a different trend in December and January, and I don't know what caused it," he said. "Those were the busiest two months I've ever had in my 19-year career. I sold 40 properties in a two-month period, and I've never seen anything like that before."

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.