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Midstate population growth leads across Pa.

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Three of the top 10 fastest-growing counties in Pennsylvania during the last 25-month population snapshot from the U.S. Census Bureau were in Central Pennsylvania.

Lancaster, Cumberland and Lebanon counties posted percentage growth of 1.3 percent to 1.4 percent between April 1, 2010, and July 1, 2012, according to the Census.

York and Dauphin counties each cracked the top 20 during that span.

All five were 20th or better over the previous decade. York County was No. 6, as of the 2010 Census.

So, what does it mean? Why is this part of the commonwealth, along with the Philadelphia region, growing faster than the rest of Pennsylvania?

"It's a good place to retire," said James Cowhey, executive director of the Lancaster County Planning Commission.

Lancaster County was No. 3 on the latest Census list for growth.

Retirement income is not taxed in Pennsylvania, which makes it attractive for retirees from other states, he said.

Why this region in particular?

"Quality of life and lower costs than other areas," Cowhey said. "It's the landscape, it's the proximity to large urban areas, the availability of goods and services."

Easy access via a strong transportation network that includes several major highways is attractive, said Jeff Kelly, deputy planning director in Cumberland County, which was No. 6 on the population growth list.

"Cumberland County has always had a fairly good economy," he said. "The unemployment rate is generally low when you compare it with other counties. And we have a pretty broad base of industries. Maybe that's what keeps us in that low unemployment range."

Despite the recession, the county has seen sustained building growth to accommodate the population increase, Kelly said. That's not from an abundance of new proposals, which have ticked up again, but rather from the multiphase developments that were approved prior to the downturn.

Residential building permits were up to 1,091 in 2012, Kelly said, which was the highest since 2008. Meanwhile, commercial permits totaled 74, a 10-year county high.

"Institutional growth drives this region with state offices here," said Will Soper, a regional planner with the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission. "Additionally, we have a number of health care systems that have continued to see growth. I think that's also driving it to some degree."

Population growth, especially certain age segments, is a major factor that influences service decisions at Harrisburg-based PinnacleHealth System, said Jeff Wiles, the company's planning director.

"We look at where the concentrations might be," he said, specifically focused on the 55-plus segment, or the heavier users of health care services.

In PinnacleHealth's primary service area in and around the capital city, there are about 590,000 people, Wiles said. Of that population, about 162,500 people are age 55 or older. That's about 27.5 percent.

By 2017, that number is projected to grow to 187,900, Wiles said.

"That's almost one in three," he said.

The national rate is about 24 percent.

"Areas where there is high residential growth expected determine increased demand for services," said Kelly McCall, PinnacleHealth's public relations coordinator.

PinnacleHealth has been upgrading and building new facilities in the area, as well as establishing partnerships and making acquisitions, to meet demands. As such, system employment increased by nearly 400 people between its 2011 and 2012 fiscal years, McCall said.

"Most firms would probably say it can't be a bad thing. It can only be a good thing," David Buehler, assistant professor of economics at Penn State Harrisburg, said, referring to the regional growth.

Growing populations mean more consumer demand for products, which is good for business and could translate to job growth, he said.

"It may make growth easier for established firms," Buehler said. "It may make their decision on whether to expand a little easier."

A job move or better prospects likely would be the main driver of population growth to a region such as Central Pennsylvania, he said. The reputation of local school systems and tax rates would then affect specific area growth.

"I think we'll see more efficient use of the land," said Cowhey, who expects to see continued growth in multifamily and mixed-use development to meet market demands for more diverse housing. "I think we're in good shape. We're planning for this type of growth."

Click here to download a PDF file of chart reflecting the midstate's population growth.

Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jasons@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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