If relative population growth is a measure of economic strength, then Bellingham and Whatcom County lag the rest of the state, according to 2012 population estimates released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.
The county's population increased 0.8 percent from 2011 to 2012, to 205,262 people. The county holds steady as the ninth most populous in the state.
The state population grew 1.1 percent in the year ending July 1, 2012, to 6,823,267.
Bellingham also lagged the state, growing 0.7 percent. The official 2012 estimate for Bellingham's population is 82,234, keeping it the 12th largest city in Washington.
"Whatcom County and Bellingham, we were one of the last areas impacted by the recession," said Sam Ryan, director of county Planning and Development Services. "Therefore now we're later coming back."
Other cities in the county are growing more rapidly.
Lynden still ranks just ahead of Ferndale in population. With 12,605 residents, Lynden is the 69th largest city in Washington. Ferndale, at 11,998 residents, is 70th.
Lynden grew by 2.9 percent from 2011 to 2012, while Ferndale's population grew 2.2 percent.
Ferndale's rapid growth is reflected in the number of residential building permits it has issued. In the past two years, Bellingham, almost seven times larger than Ferndale, has issued fewer building permits for houses than its smaller neighbor.
Home construction in Bellingham and the county is showing signs of improvement, officials have said.
"We're actually seeing spec homes," Ryan said. "When you start seeing spec homes, then you start seeing some growth."
The most rapid growth is taking place in urban areas. This conforms to the Growth Management Act, which requires most new residents to locate in cities rather than rural areas.
The slowest-growing area in the county is the unincorporated part, outside of any city. It grew 0.4 percent from 2011 to 2012. Overall urban growth during that period was 1.2 percent.
"We are pleased to see that the rate of rural growth is slower compared to cities in Whatcom County," said Kate Blystone, director of the Whatcom chapter of Futurewise, an anti-sprawl group. "Directing growth into cities is the best way to ensure we have farmland and forests for future generations while reducing the costs of public facilities and services for taxpayers and ratepayers."
"As to whether this is a sign that the Growth Management Act is working, I think it remains to be seen as the years progress," Blystone said.
POPULATION GROWTH RATE, 2011-12
Lynden - 2.9 percent
Ferndale - 2.2 percent
Nooksack - 1.3 percent
Everson - 1.2 percent
Blaine - 1.1 percent
Sumas - 0.8 percent
Bellingham - 0.7 percent
unincorporated Whatcom County - 0.4 percent
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
WHATCOM CITY POPULATIONS (STATE RANK)
Bellingham - 82,234 (12th)
Lynden - 12,605 (69th)
Ferndale - 11,998 (70th)
Blaine - 4,831 (123rd)
Everson - 2,549 (151st)
Nooksack - 1,391 (185th)
Sumas - 1,333 (188th)
Source: U.S. Census Bureau