Not too long ago, Carroll County faced a problem: Rapid growth had brought crowded classrooms to the northeastern part of the county, and planners expected many more homes to be built in the area.
"At one point, they were 400 kids over capacity at North Carroll High," said Bill Caine, facilities planner for the school system. It seemed inevitable that a new high school would be filled within a few years, so the county decided to build Manchester Valley High, which could accommodate 1,300 students -- at a cost of $80 million.
Today, though, Manchester Valley is operating at about 60 percent of capacity, and North Carroll has nearly as many openings, the result of big changes in the Baltimore area's population growth patterns.
In recent years, the rapid pace of growth in Carroll and Harford counties -- once the most robust in the region -- has slowed. In fact, recent census estimates show that Carroll's population declined from mid-2011 to mid-2012, a rare occurrence, even as more urban counties such as Baltimore and Anne Arundel -- as well as the city of Baltimore -- grew. The new estimates mirror trends that have played out since the recession began.
Experts attribute those trends to several factors. Two large generations, the baby boomers and the millennials, had already developed urban-centric perceptions of what they want in a home. The recession's legacy, including stagnant wages and rising building costs, fueled their growing interest in urban areas.
"What you're seeing is a number of factors in play, and they're all playing in the same direction -- they're bringing people closer," said John K. McIlwain, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that studies land use and real estate development.
Three-fourths of Maryland's jurisdictions, including smaller, outlying counties such as Carroll and Harford, have yet to return to pre-recession levels of population growth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Four of the six jurisdictions that have bounced back -- Baltimore City, plus Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard, Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- are in metropolitan Baltimore.
More people like him
In Baltimore County, the largest locality in the region, much of the recent population growth has come from immigrants. Hernan Diaz Sr., who owns Genesis Grocery in Dundalk, has noticed a change in his community in the past few years. There are more people like him -- immigrants from Latin America.
There are now four Spanish-speaking churches nearby. He regularly sees youths playing soccer in the local parks. And, most importantly for him, business has improved at his North Dundalk Avenue store, which is filled with items popular in Central and South America: salted prawns and dried mackerel, chocolate-covered marshmallow pops, and alborotos, sweet popcorn balls.
"The first three years, man, it was terrible," Diaz said of business at his shop, which he opened in 2007 after operating in Baltimore. "But the last three years, we've been having more and more customers."
Diaz and his family were pioneers of the recent movement of Latin American immigrants to southeastern Baltimore County. They moved in 2000 from the Highlandtown area and have been followed by many families, including some who also first settled within Baltimore's city limits.
"I was waiting for an opportunity to open a store here," Diaz said. "I saw this was a nice area."
Baltimore County gained more than 5,000 residents between mid-2011 and mid-2012, more people than the Census Bureau figured the county gained from 2005 to 2006, the year before the recession struck. Three-fifths of the growth last year was from international migration, the Census Bureau said; the rest was mainly from births.
"The way Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sees the Latino population, I see the population as a boon for Dundalk," said Amy Menzer, executive director of the Dundalk Renaissance Corp., a community development organization.
Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore's mayor, has instituted policies to welcome immigrants to the city as part of her goal to increase the population by 10,000 families in a decade. Immigrants are the main driver of the city's population stabilization in recent years and, according to City Hall, will go a long way toward boosting the city's tax base.
Baltimore County hasn't always been a destination for Latin American immigrants. Ten years ago, the county drew most of its new residents from moves within the U.S. But the balance has shifted, partly because people who bought homes during the housing bubble are hard-pressed to move.
"The recession has kept people in their houses," said Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.