The state gained in population for the first time since 2004, according to recently released Census Bureau statistics. Ottawa County is on a slight upswing, too.
But a closer look at the numbers and insight from rental companies indicate the newest residents aren't just arriving by moving truck — the stork is bringing them, too.
Although Michigan move-in rates are getting more of a “thumbs up” from transients in recent years, the Great Lakes State still ranks sixth-lowest in the nation in people coming versus people going.
United Van Lines' recent migration study showed that 58 percent of Michigan moves last year involved customers driving away from the state. Only 42 percent were moving in, which ranks 44th in the nation.
But that's up from 2006-09, when Michigan plunked dead last in the country.
Local experts say Ottawa County and the Tri-Cities have the upper hand in the population game, holding steady and even growing in the past decade despite a nail-biting economy.
Shannon Virtue, research and evaluation analyst for the Ottawa County Planning and Performance Improvement Department, said this area is fortunate. Every part of the county grew in 2010 and 2011.
Ottawa was the third-fastest growing (0.6 percent) of Michigan's 83 counties during that period. Population statistics for 2012 will be released in the spring.
“We gained 2,500 people, and almost 2,000 of that was more people being born than dying,” Virtue said. “People are living longer in Ottawa County because of the overall health of the community.”
Some of the area's recreational assets — such as lakes, bike paths, beaches and parks — may play a part.
“People are more physically active here,” Virtue said.
Another obvious trend is people opting for township living. The cities of Grand Haven and Ferrysburg and Village of Spring Lake lost population in the past dozen years, while outlying areas gained.
From 2000 to 2010, Grand Haven Township led the charge with a 14 percent population spike. Spring Lake Township jumped 12 percent, Robinson Township is up 9 percent and Crockery Township gained 5 percent.
Conversely, the City of Grand Haven and Village of Spring Lake both lost 7 percent, while Ferrysburg dipped 5 percent.
Virtue said she expects the overall trend to march upward.
“We've put together graphs showing different models of population growth rates,” she said. “Right now, the latest one we put out is showing our county will continue to grow. It's not growing as fast as it once was, but it will still continue to grow.”
Dennis Zimmer, a U-Haul dealer at Zimmer Automotive in Spring Lake, said outbound moving trucks are slightly ahead of inbound in the Tri-Cities market – about 51 to 49 percent. But that's a far cry above 2007, when the turnstile spun outward.
“We started feeling this stuff happening before the financial crunch in 2008,” Zimmer said. “Michigan is so dependent on the auto industry. Michigan is always the first one to feel it. We started seeing trucks leave in '07. It was like a mass exodus, no question about it. Guys were leaving the state looking for work.”
By late 2010 and into 2011, people were returning to the area, according to Zimmer. He recalls once having so many inbound trucks that he had to park them on the street and in an overflow lot down the block.
“It was amazing all the trucks we had coming back,” he said. “Ottawa County was one of the few counties that actually had an uptick in population.”
But Zimmer said he senses it leveling off, at least for now.
“A lot of people from around the state were coming into Grand Haven from the fall of 2010 through the summer of 2011,” he said. “I can't attest that they were from out of state, but I'm sure a notable percentage were. We had a plethora of equipment because of people moving into the Grand Haven area. That tapered off. Now we have a little more leaving than coming in.”
Zimmer said he doesn't have exact numbers, but he still sees strong inflows from other parts of the state. He estimates 90 percent of people moving to the area are from Detroit and elsewhere in the state, and only 10 percent of incoming trucks are from other states.
“One of the bright spots from a local perspective has been the Grand Haven area is an attractive spot to move to,” Zimmer said. “A lot of what we saw in recent months were people who were gainfully employed in Grand Rapids or Holland who wanted to live in Grand Haven or Spring Lake.”
David Miller, vice president of economic development for the local Chamber of Commerce, said manufacturing growth is surging in Northwest Ottawa County, but many local companies are playing it safe with new hires.
“We had two years of record sales for the most part,” Miller said. “Their sales were increasing, but their workforce was holding steady. Most of them are projecting continued growth in the 10-20 percent range.
"People are buying cars again. Office furniture is starting to come back as well," he added. "That's all good for our economy.”
Miller said there are several new projects in the “talking stage” that could bring more jobs to the area.
“Most of the companies in this area are still privately owned,” he noted. “They tend to be conservative, which means their businesses are stable.”
Miller said that stable business tradition fosters a stable community.
“I don't think our area was hurt as badly (by the recession) as a lot of other areas,” he said. “Our population has been steadily increasing. This is a great place to live and work, and the population numbers are an indication of that.”