ST. LOUIS — St. Louis is losing residents, according to U.S. Census figures released Thursday, and the population decline goes deeper than being another blow to the proud city's image.
The drop will mean a financial loss that could cost the already cash-strapped Gateway City millions of dollars.
Figures from the 2010 census were a bitter disappointment, as the city's population dipped to 319,294. That's down more than 29,000 — a staggering 8 percent — from 2000. For St. Louis leaders, the news was doubly disappointing because they were expecting to see an increase.
"It is absolutely bad news," Mayor Francis Slay said. "We thought after more than 50 years of population decline that the city had finally changed direction. Obviously, that's not the case."
The census numbers are more than an ego shot to a community already fighting an image of high crime and poorly performing schools. Federal funding for many of the city's programs is tied to population.
"It will mean a significant loss in federal dollars over the next 10 years," Slay said.
St. Louis was the nation's eighth-largest city with a population of 856,795 in 1950. Now, for a couple of decades, it hasn't even been Missouri's largest city. Kansas City's population grew to 460,000 in the latest census, widening the gap over St. Louis, though the St. Louis metro area remains significantly larger.
Since the mid-20th century, the exodus of St. Louis residents to the suburbs has been startling. And people keep moving farther away from the urban core. St. Louis County lost population in 2010 for the first time, down 1.7 percent to 998,954, as residents relocate to communities such as St. Charles, O'Fallon, Wentzville and Troy.
"This is a time for an urgent rethinking of how we do everything as a region," Slay said. "If this doesn't jump-start a discussion about the city re-entering the county and how we start thinking more as a region, nothing will."
St. Louis is unique in that it is its own county. St. Louis city and St. Louis County are completely separate entities. Slay said that leads to redundancies of service that are unnecessary.
Steven S. Smith, a public policy professor at Washington University in St. Louis, agrees that something needs to change.
"The challenges are really quite substantial," Smith said. "How do you attract business? How do you maintain neighborhoods? How do you prevent continuing decay and abandonment which, when it gets to a certain point, leads to a downward spiral?"
A census estimate on July 1, 2009, forecast that the city's population of 348,189 in 2000 had grown to 356,587. Either the estimate was wrong or there has been a substantial recent exodus.
The 2010 census is based on the population in April 2010. Slay said the city was hurting from the recession, with some residents displaced, perhaps hard to find. Still, he said, that doesn't account for such a steep decline.
The mayor said the ongoing struggles of the city school district are a big part of the problem.
"A lot of families are leaving the city for better educational opportunities, especially public education opportunities," Slay said.
Increasingly, they're moving further and further out. Jefferson County saw its population increase 10.4 percent to 218,733. St. Charles County's population continues to rise sharply, up 27 percent to 360,485. The fastest growing counties are on the far outreaches of the St. Louis metro area — Lincoln County grew 35 percent and Warren County 32.6 percent.
"I think it's just a quality of life issue," St. Charles County spokesman John Sonderegger said. He pointed to his county's high-paying and high-tech jobs, affordable housing, good schools, low crime rates and one of the nation's lowest poverty rates.
But Smith said a turnaround for St. Louis' fortunes is critical — not only for the city but for surrounding communities and Missouri as a whole.
"The state is missing an opportunity to enhance what could be an important engine of economic growth," Smith said. "The metro areas often suffer in statewide politics because of attitudes in rural areas. But those rural areas need places where people can be educated, where their kids may find work."