JEFFERSON CITY — Residents flocked to southwestern Missouri during the past decade, and a half-century of St. Louis flight continued with the city's outer suburbs rising in population.
Missouri data released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that the state's southwest corner expanded in population. And in the eastern part of the state, the counties of St. Charles, Lincoln and Warren near St. Louis saw an increase in residents. The movement of people within Missouri could be particularly significant for lawmakers who must decide which of the state's nine congressional districts to eliminate.
All of the state's congressional districts will need to expand to cover a larger number of people with a fewer number of congressional districts. That's because Missouri's 7 percent population growth lagged behind other states.
The growth in two current congressional districts leaves them with populations relatively close to what would be required after redistricting. Republicans Billy Long and Todd Akin represent those districts.
Missouri's 7th Congressional District grew by about 100,000 people over the past decade, paced by a roughly 43 percent growth rate in Christian County — which amounts to an additional 23,000 people — and a 14 percent growth rate in Greene County. Greene County is the home of Springfield, and Christian County is located just south of Greene County between Branson and Springfield.
Real estate agents in southwestern Missouri said nearby colleges and universities and medical facilities have helped to fuel steady growth.
"We're real excited, and we're also seeing growth all through southwestern Missouri," said Tammie Tucker, a part-owner of A.R. Wilson Realtors in Springfield.
By contrast, the 1st Congressional District in St. Louis city and St. Louis County declined by almost 35,000 people. That congressional district, currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, would need to add more than 150,000 people. That could require the district to be expanded or combined with another one nearby.
Clay's area is bordered by Akin's and Democratic U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan's districts. Carnahan also represents part of St. Louis city and St. Louis County, plus Jefferson and Ste. Genevieve counties.
One reason for the decline in Clay's district was the loss of population in the city of St. Louis. According to the new census figures, St. Louis had a population of 319,294 in 2010, which was down about 8 percent from figures released 10 years ago.
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said Thursday that the decline was disappointing and that the St. Louis region must reconsider how it operates.
"We are such a fragmented region. We're competing with each other, competing among ourselves on everything from sales tax to jobs to people," Slay said. "We need to start thinking more aggressively about our future and rethinking how we do everything."
Although the population figures offer a glimpse of the shape of possible congressional districts, the Republican-led state Legislature is not required to build from the existing structure and could choose to scrap the current borders and start all over.
"Everyone understands the status quo isn't going to be the status quo," said state Rep. John Diehl, R-Town and Country, who's chairman of the House's redistricting committee.
Lawmakers would approve the new congressional districts through legislation. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon could veto an objectionable proposal, which would force lawmakers to decide whether to try to override it with a two-thirds vote. Republicans control more than two-thirds of the state Senate and are just shy of that in the House.
Officials have known since December that Missouri would drop from nine to eight congressional districts, based on the statewide population. That is the fewest number of congressional districts in Missouri since the 1850 census. Missouri's congressional delegation peaked at 16 after the 1900 census and stayed there until the 1930 count. The state most recently lost a seat after the 1980 census cut the number of districts from 10 to nine.
Equipped with detailed information about the counties and cities in which Missourians reside, state lawmakers are moving forward with developing a new congressional map. House leaders plan March hearings in Blue Springs, Poplar Bluff, St. Louis and Mexico, Mo.
Besides redistricting, the census data also offer a picture of the people who live in Missouri.
The data show that Missouri's racial minority population grew, with the Hispanic population increasing by 79 percent since 2000, compared to a growth rate of a little more than 4 percent for white residents. Hispanics comprise 3.5 percent of Missouri's population, compared with 83 percent for whites. Blacks remain Missouri's largest racial minority, at 11.6 percent of the total population.
Other figures released Thursday show that 12 percent of Missouri's homes were vacant last year. It is unclear why the homes were empty, but the counties with the highest vacancy rates all have lakes that are popular vacation spots. Camden County near the Lake of the Ozarks had the highest vacant home rate at 54 percent.