The numbers may tell the story when it comes to further recognition of St. Charles County’s place in the St. Louis region.
“From an economic standpoint, the center of the region is probably out somewhere in west St. Louis County and we’re right in the center of it and all the great things that are going on here at a time when the city of St. Louis is the sick man of the region,” County Executive Steve Ehlmann said.
Ehlmann’s remarks were sparked by numbers that highlight the county’s growth and a significant population benchmark – 400,000 people.
As of July 1, 2016, the county’s population was estimated at 390,918 by the U.S. Census Bureau – an increase of 30,423 persons, or 8.4 percent, from 2010. But Ehlmann said the more significant milestone was when the county passed St. Louis City a few years ago. In 2016, St. Louis’ population was estimated at 311,404.
“It won’t be long here that we’ll have 100,000 people more than the city,” Ehlmann said. He conceded that St. Louis is still the center of the region in terms of sports and recreation, culture and tourism, but said downtown St. Louis isn’t the economic center of the region.
Ehlmann added that it would be super if “going over 400,000 will attract attention to all the good things that are going on out here.”
Cities leading growth
Some of those “good things” are happening in the county’s fastest growing municipalities – O’Fallon and Wentzville.
O’Fallon, the county’s largest municipality, has seen its population grow from an estimated 79,329 people in the 2010 U.S. Census to a 2016 Census Bureau estimate of 86,274. Michael Hurlbert, director of the county’s community development department and O’Fallon’s former planning director, said the number is fairly close to what city officials were projecting.
To the west, along Interstate 70, Wentzville continues to experience dramatic growth up from 29,070 people in the 2010 census to an estimated 37, 395 in 2016. “I think is closer to 40,000, based on the single-family housing permits we get a year – 750 to 800 housing permits,” said Wentzville Mayor Nick Guccione. “At 2020 or 2021, I think we’re projecting to be at 45,000 right now.”
Houses are on the market for seven to 10 days’ tops, Guccione said.
The city also is seeing a rise in multi-family housing with new apartment complexes and new senior housing. “Wentzville is a popular place to be right now,” Guccione said. “All these other groups are talking about our growth and saying Wentzville may be the biggest city in St. Charles County.”
“O’Fallon continues to grow at a steady pace and Wentzville is obviously booming, that’s where a lot of the growth is occurring,” Hurlbert said. But he said the city of St. Charles, with new single-family housing being built in the northern part of the city, is seeing residential development that they didn’t have for some years.
The county has slowly recovered from the recession that began in 2008 and had slowed home building. For the last three years, the county has had about 1,700 single-family housing permits issued annually. Although new housing permits issued countywide is slightly off through August of this year, Hurlbert said the activity is still fairly consistent.
Growth is happening for a number of reasons
Reasons for that growth are complex and varied. The combination of available land and lower housing and living costs are obvious ones.
“St. Charles County is fairly affordable,” said J.S. Onesimo Sandoval, an associate professor of sociology at Saint Louis University. “It’s very difficult for young families to get into St. Louis County. There are still places – there’s Maryland Heights, there’s Florissant – but beyond that, it’s very difficult for people to get in.”
Sandoval said O’Fallon, St. Peters and St. Charles offer affordable housing in the $175,000 to $225,000 range. “It’s very difficult to find that in St. Louis County, those homes don’t really exist. You have to go 250,000 to 265,000 as the entry price. I think these young families, they are skipping the [St. Louis] County and going straight to St. Charles County.”
Moving away from north St. Louis County
Another factor in the rise in population – although more exact numbers recently remain unknown – may be outmigration from north St. Louis County. Outmigration has been a factor in the county’s growth going back to the 1950s. In recent years, speculation has pointed toward unrest in Ferguson as a catalyst for population growth in St. Charles County.
“We know people are here, we don’t necessarily know where they are coming from except anecdotally,” Ehlmann said. “Anecdotally I think, based on what I hear, there are more Hazelwood high school graduates in St. Charles County than there are St. Charles high school high graduates.”
Guccione, who grew up in Florissant and came to the city 14 years ago, said it’s a little too early to tell the extent of north St. Louis County residents moving into Wentzville. But he’s meeting them.
“I’m seeing it when I knock on doors and am meeting a lot of people I’m familiar with or knew in North County and they also tell me where they came from,” Guccione said. Many are coming from the Florissant area. “We are seeing a lot of that migration.”
Sandoval said a better indication of outmigration from north St. Louis County may appear in Census Bureau updates, from 2011 to 2017, that may be available in December.
Ehlmann sees the county’s growth continuing “indefinitely unless people on the other side of the river start getting their act together.”
“I tell people all the time ‘we don’t spend a dime on advertising.’ These people aren’t coming out here, they’re not being drawn out here as much as they’re being kicked out from where they are,” he said. “They are being discouraged from staying on the other side of the river because they don’t have good schools and safe neighborhoods. If we ever quit providing those two things they won’t come here either.”
Spillover among the neighbors
Population growth in St. Charles and in neighboring Warren and Lincoln counties should continue if people are willing to drive a little longer to get to work, Sandoval said.
Warren County’s population was estimated at 33,518 in 2016 by the Census Bureau, up from 32,513 in 2010. Lincoln County’s population was estimated at 55,267 in 2016, up from 52,566 in 2010.
“It is going to have some growing pains I think,” Sandoval said. “Some of the roads out there are not built for traffic congestion, particularly in the Wentzville and Troy areas.”
Ehlmann predicted that the price of gasoline will play a role. A major obstacle also may be an old railroad bridge across I-70 in Wentzville that limits the widening of the interstate beyond its existing two lanes in either direction. Traffic often bottlenecks on the interstate near the bridge, but removing that bridge may be up to a cash-strapped Missouri Department of Transportation.
“I don’t see a lot of people moving to Warren County if it takes them a half-hour to get under the railroad bridge,” Ehlmann said.
Lincoln County is facing some the growth challenges that St. Charles County faced 25 years ago, Ehlmann said. Its residents may have to look at changing their form of government. “At some point, you have to have a professional planning department and police and you have to start doing things a little bit differently than when you had 30,000 people in the county,” Ehlmann said.