Economic impact of North Bay’s downward trending populations

North Bay population contracted during the pandemic after slowing in preceding years, according to the latest estimates. Experts attribute the underlying causes to challenges the region’s economy has been facing in attracting and keeping workers and businesses.

Since April 2020, the region has lost 22,000 residents, or 1.5% of the 1.4 million who live in Sonoma, Solano, Marin, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties, according to an estimate released earlier this month by the California Department of Finance.

For decades, the area has grown, but at a slower rate each decade. Analysis of Census data shows a regional growth rate of 4.4% in the 2010s, 5.1% in the 2000s, 14.2% in the 1990s, 25% in the 1980s and 30.5% in the 1970s.

The Department of Finance uses the county figures — averaged from birth and death statistics plus address changes from driver license and tax data — to figure out how to distribute state money to local areas. Estimates for city populations are developed from tallies of existing housing stock and occupancy.

Within those death metrics lies a sobering statistic — 1,638 deaths so far attributed to COVID-19 in the six North Bay counties.

Marin County took the region’s largest proportional hit in population decline since March 2020 and the January 2022 latest estimate, down 2%, or nearly 5,200 residents, the state estimates show. That was followed by Mendocino (-1.7%, 1,600), Solano (down 1.4%, 6,200), Sonoma (-1.3%, 6,400), Napa (-1.3%, 1,800) and Lake (-1.1%, 750).

They joined 34 of California’s 58 counties in losing population. On average, interior counties gained while most all coastal counties were down, except for San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz counties attributed to returning college students, according to the Department of Finance.

That agency attributed the statewide decline to the aging of boomers and falling birth rates among younger generations, on top of federal immigration policy and an increase in residents leaving the state.

The trend of a greying population could also be behind the declines in Napa, Marin and Sonoma counties, according to Sonoma State University economist Robert Eyler, noting that Marin has the oldest median age (47.1 years, per the Census Bureau) of California counties with populations over 250,000.

“That aging phenomenon has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said.

Whether this aging trend will continue is in question because of an influx of younger professionals from elsewhere in the Bay Area during the pandemic, Eyler said. Data for demographic changes in North Bay and Bay Area counties in the past two years are due to be released this summer.

The pandemic public health orders closed down many offices throughout the state, it led to a surge in remote work for information-related jobs and an uptick in relocations out of Bay Area tech clusters to suburban areas such as the North Bay, which also has the key California resort destinations.

What is known is that Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties have faced high home prices and challenges attracting high-paying companies, though Napa County continues to lean heavily on its wine and tourism industries, said Eyler, who regularly analyzes data under contract from multiple economic development groups in the region.

Here is how much North Bay home prices have risen.

Median home prices in the North Bay counties have mostly more than doubled since 2015 and are up by 16.5% to 53.5% since the beginning of the pandemic, according to California Association of Realtors data. In fact, Marin’s median took an unprecedented 31% annual jump to $2.11 million in April.

“That's a combination of high-end homes trading at very high prices and a lot of demand coming in from San Francisco,” said Tracy McLaughlin, a top-selling agent with real estate brokerage The Agency.

And a number of these multimillion-dollar buyers during the pandemic have been young professionals, in their late 20s or early 30s with no or small families, she said.

“The demographic is much, much younger — tons of liquidity. They've had IPOs, and when you get that kind of tech wealth, it's all sloshing around in one geographic area,” McLaughlin said.

Marin has been attractive for this tech wealth particularly during the pandemic because the young executives have been looking more for outdoor experiences not as easily accessible in an urban setting, such as back yard barbecues and mountain biking, she said.

Eyler said the pandemic also accelerated outward migration of residents after the wildfires in the past seven years.

Sonoma County’s population growth had started to ebb two years before the Tubbs and other 2017 fires destroyed over 6,000 homes in Sonoma and Napa counties.

But then Sonoma County population growth declined. Eyler observed from Department of Finance estimates. That slump for Sonoma County continued into 2018 and 2019, which had the Kincade Fire that led to the evacuations of two significant population centers, Healdsburg and Windsor.

Mental health experts have told the Business Journal that threats to safety have been a factor in wanting to leave the area.

Eyler noted that a similar “shadow effect” on the local economy and population from wildfire can be seen in Northern California’s Butte County after the 2018 Camp Fire, which devastated the city of Paradise.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before coming to the Business Journal in 1999, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. Reach him at or 707-521-4256.

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