These Arizona cities and towns are shrinking, even as state population booms

Jen Fifield, Arizona RepublicPublished 6:00 a.m. MT June 3, 2019 | Updated 11:18 a.m. MT June 3, 2019

A rancher walks across the open land in Douglas, Arizona. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)

In one year, the population of Douglas, the former copper mining town on the U.S.-Mexico border, shrunk by 200.

The year before, from 2016 to 2017, it dropped by 400.

By 2018, the city had lost 9.3% of the population it had in 2010, or nearly one in every 10 people, according to U.S. Census data released recently.

As Arizona's population continues to boom, some smaller towns — including many near the U.S.-Mexico border — are being left behind.

Of the 91 cities and towns in the state, 18 have shrunk since the worst of the Great Recession, the data shows.

Most of these places are south of Tucson, on the Mexico border or within 50 miles of it. The largest are Douglas, Nogales and Sierra Vista.

People are moving out of the cities — just as they are from more rural places across the country — as they seek more education and opportunities, according to local officials and researchers.

Recently, political rhetoric about border towns being unsafe hasn't helped, local officials say. In reality, Douglas and Nogales have lower violent crime rates than the state's largest cities.

"When we have government saying border towns are dangerous or a war zone — that has an effect," said Olivia Ainza-Kramer, president and CEO of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce.

Nogales, Douglas shrink

The population drops are in sharp contrast to the overall state trend. Arizona has many of the nation's fastest-growing cities.

The state grew by 11.9% from 2010 to 2018. That's more than one new person for every 10 who were already here.

In recent years, Phoenix has added more people than any city in the country. Buckeye is the fastest-growing city in the nation.

In contrast, many of the shrinking cities and towns in Arizona are isolated from the main population centers of Phoenix and Tucson.

Nogales shrunk by 3% from 2010 to 2018, or 20,188 residents, according to the Census data. That shrinking has slowed in the last three years.

Douglas' population fell steadily from 2010 to 2018, from 17,608 to 15,978, according to the Census data. The decline is the largest the state saw in any city during that time.

Not all border cities are shrinking, though.

Yuma, the state's largest border city, grew about 7.2% from 2010 to 2018, to about 98,000, the data shows.

Lack of jobs drives people out

People have been leaving Nogales in recent years because of the lack of opportunities in the county, Ainza-Kramer said.

People are moving to other cities, such as those in the Phoenix area, where they can get jobs faster, Ainza-Kramer said.

The unemployment rate in Nogales is about 7.5%, compared with 3.8% in Phoenix.

The produce industry is the area's largest employer other than government and schools. Officials there are trying to diversify the economy and expand education opportunities, Ainza-Kramer said.

In Douglas, officials are trying to build up the manufacturing industry, said David Carranza, the city's director of economic development.

A sign marks the turnoff for Bill McDonald’s loading corral at Sycamore Ranch in Douglas, Arizona. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)

He's trying to sell manufacturers on the inexpensive land, proximity to Mexico and ability to have suppliers and manufacturers in one spot.

The city has lacked a main industry since copper mining faded there, he said.

The city is adding a new commercial port of entry at the border that Carranza said will spur an economic boom and increase job opportunities.

Ainza-Kramer and Carranza said Nogales and Douglas are great places to live for many reasons, including the natural beauty and mild climate.

Rural towns hurting everywhere

Across the country, rural places like these are facing population losses for a variety of reasons, said David Plane, a professor at the University of Arizona's School of Geography and Development.

Young people are moving away and having fewer children, and older people are dying, he said. Also, fewer people are farming.

Across the West, young people are moving to job centers, which have more education and opportunities, said Kelly Pohl, a researcher at Headwaters Economics.

That may be the case in Santa Cruz County, Pohl said, which is isolated from metro Phoenix.

In Arizona, the decline in immigration from Mexico may also have slowed growth in border towns, Plane said.

"Border towns were doing better when lots of people were moving to the U.S." he said.

Stereotypes hurt the cities

Ainza-Kramer and Carranza said another factor that hurts their cities is the general misconception that border cities are dangerous.

This misconception has become more apparent in the current political climate, Ainza-Kramer said, and it hurts tourism and business.

President Donald Trump makes a frequent claim that immigrants bring in high levels of crime.

In Douglas, people and businesses are less likely to move in if they think the area is unsafe or doesn't have a good quality of life, Carranza said.

Nogales and Douglas have violent crime rates lower than Phoenix and Tucson.

Douglas had 25 violent crimes per 10,000 residents in 2017 and Nogales had 22, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. That compares with 76 violent crimes per 10,000 residents in Phoenix and 80 in Tucson.

"This is a safe and potentially opportunistic place for those wanting to come manufacture and live," Carranza said. "The things people say ... it's not true."