BY TIM VANDENACK
Elkhart County's population totals 197,559, up 8.1 percent from 182,791 in 2000, powered largely by the increase in Hispanics here, according to 2010 U.S. Census Bureau figures released Thursday.
The city of Elkhart lost 1.8 percent of its population, falling from 51,874 in 2000 to 50,949 in 2010. The number of Hispanics increased nearly 50 percent, from 7,678 to 11,451, but it wasn't enough to counter the dip in the non-Hispanic white population, from 34,655 to 29,565.
Goshen experienced an 8 percent increase in its population, to 31,719. Like Elkhart, it saw a dip in the white, non-Hispanic population, from 22,525 to 21,140. But the increase in Hispanics, from 5,679 to 8,903, more than made up for that loss.
Elkhart County's population count for 2010 actually lags behind an earlier U.S. Census Bureau estimate for 2009, which put the total county population for that year at 200,502. Matt Kinghorn, a demographer at the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University's Kelly School of Business, suspects the lower number may stem from the departure of people here brought on by the economic downturn.
The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a national population count every 10 years and carried out the decennial effort last year. It is now in the process of releasing detailed information from the head count, state by state.
Here are some other highlights from the new U.S. Census numbers:
* Hispanic growth: Hispanics accounted for 78.5 percent of Elkhart County's population increase from 2000 to 2010, or 11,586 of the 14,768 new residents here. Countywide, the number of non-Hispanic whites increased by just 134 in the decade.
* Whites leaving cities: More and more non-Hispanic whites are living outside the county's cities and towns. The number living in incorporated areas dipped from 69,943 to 63,850, but increased in incorporated areas, from 82,478 to 88,705.
* Country living preferred: More people overall now live in unincorporated areas -- 100,560 -- compared with 96,999 in the three cities and four towns in Elkhart County. In 2000, 88,000 lived in unincorporated areas and 94,791 lived in cities and towns.
Many towns that once anchored Indiana's auto industry experienced a major rise in home vacancy rates over the past decade, underscoring that this area is losing residents along with the jobs, figures released Thursday by the Census Bureau show.
North-central and east-central Indiana, which absorbed the brunt of the job loss, also showed the highest percentage of unoccupied homes. For example, in Madison County, where General Motors' former Anderson parts plants are now shuttered, more than 7,000 of about 59,000 housing units stood vacant during last year's census count.
Five adjacent counties that have been major manufacturing hubs -- Madison, Grant, Delaware, Howard and Wayne -- combined to show a 10.5 percent housing vacancy rate, higher than most other places in the state.
Retired auto worker and Anderson City Councilman Ollie Dixon said that city's west side has been struggling for 30 years as jobs slowly drifted away, with businesses closing behind them and finally people leaving.
"They're all gone," Dixon said of the factory jobs. "We have people here working two minimum wage jobs trying to make ends meet."
State demographer Matt Kinghorn of the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University, said a large swath of Indiana, from Logansport and Wabash in the north to Richmond and Connersville in the east, were among the biggest losers of population, along with Gary, which lost nearly a quarter of its residents, declining from about 102,700 people in 2000 to about 80,300 in last year's census.
Among gainers, the 10-county Indianapolis-Carmel metropolitan area grew by about 231,000 residents from 2000 to 2010, compared with statewide growth of about 403,000. The state's overall population rose nearly 7 percent to 6,483,802 as of April 1.
The loss of population and economic good times in Anderson has resulted in the closing of two Anderson high schools during the past decade.
Now the remaining Anderson High has about two-thirds of its students on free or reduced-price lunches and a graduation rate under 60 percent, said President Nancy Vaughn of United Way of Madison County. It's no drawing card for potential residents, who will find more attractive schools in nearby Fishers and Carmel, both in growing Hamilton County.
Realtor Patty Kuhn said Anderson's best shot at reinventing itself is turning into a bedroom community for Indianapolis, an easy 30-minute commute down Interstate 69.
"Once people understand that commuting is not that big of a deal, I think we will see growth from the Indianapolis-Hamilton County area because we have good buys here. I think that's a possibility -- I think that's our hope," Kuhn said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
For a look at Elkhart County demographics, click here.
To see how population has changed in Elkhart County since the last census, click here.