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NWI population steady over past decade; Gary's plummets 14%, census finds

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Gary Aerial

While Northwest Indiana as a whole posted a modest population gain in the 2020 U.S. Census, the city of Gary (above) lost 14% of its population between 2010 and 2020 and now is home to just 69,093 residents — the fewest inhabitants since the 1920 census found 55,378 people living among the steel mills and sand dunes.

The population of Northwest Indiana largely held steady over the past decade, but the distribution of residents in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties has shifted significantly, according to 2020 U.S. Census data released Thursday.

Lake County remains the second-most populous in the Hoosier State with 498,700 inhabitants, an increase of 2,695, or 0.5%, compared to 2010. Only Marion County, home to the state capital at Indianapolis, has more with 977,203 residents.

The 173,215 people calling Porter County home makes it the 10th most populous Indiana county, up 8,872 residents, or 5.4%, in the past 10 years, while LaPorte County added 950 people since 2010, or 0.9%, and now is home to 112,417 inhabitants, the census found.

Nearly all Northwest Indiana municipalities larger than 5,000 residents gained population between April 1, 2010, and April 1, 2020, except for Gary and East Chicago, which suffered significant population losses; and Hammond, Griffith, South Haven and Westville, which saw minor drops.

Population tallies for municipalities with fewer than 5,000 people were not immediately available from the Census Bureau.

The census pegged Gary's 2020 population at 69,093, a 14% decline compared to 2010 and an astounding 61.3% free fall from the Steel City's highest recorded population of 178,320 in the 1960 census.

The last time Gary had so few residents was a hundred years ago in 1920, when the census found 55,378 people living among the steel mills and sand dunes just 14 years after the city was established in 1906 by U.S. Steel founder Elbert Gary.

Gary Mayor Jerome Prince said he's concerned by the city's new population count and plans to investigate whether Gary residents were missed by census takers.

Either way, Prince said he's committed to growing Gary's population by putting policies and programs in place to attract more businesses and residents, including capitalizing on the city's "tremendous technology assets."

"That will help us encourage young people to stay here and to come here to help us build our city moving forward," Prince said.

Data show Gary also no longer is among Indiana's top 10 cities ranked by population. It's now 11th behind the growing Indianapolis suburb of Noblesville and its 69,604 residents.

East Chicago hasn't been in the top 10 for decades. But its 11.2% population drop to 26,370 residents in 2020 from 29,698 in 2010 was the second-largest decline in the Region.

Hammond, however, still is a top 10 city. The 77,879 Hammondites — down 3.7% from 80,830 in 2010 — were good enough to rank as the eighth-most populated municipality, between seventh-place Bloomington at 79,168 and ninth-place Lafayette at 70,783.

According to the census, the other most populous cities in the state are Indianapolis (887,642); Fort Wayne (263,886); Evansville (117,298); South Bend (103,453); Carmel (99,757); and Fishers (98,977).

The astounding growth in Indianapolis' northern suburbs — if the adjacent Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville merged they'd form the second-largest Indiana city — is mirrored by people moving away from Lake County's northern tier and some Chicago suburbs in Illinois and into fast-growing cities and towns at the southern end of Lake County.

The 2020 census recorded the greatest Northwest Indiana municipal population growth in Winfield. The town now has 7,181 inhabitants, up from 4,383 in 2010, for an increase of 63.9%.

Census data shows the 20,303 people now living in St. John is 36.7% more than its 14,850 a decade ago. Crown Point also grew 24.1% in the past 10 years to 33,899 residents, while Cedar Lake increased 22% to 14,106, and Lowell jumped 15.1% to 10,680.

Chesterton saw the highest population growth in Porter County, up 9% to 14,241 residents. Valparaiso grew 7.6% to 34,151, Portage was up 3% to 37,926, and both Michigan City (32,075) and LaPorte (22,471) posted identical 1.9% increases for the decade, the census found.

The release of detailed population data by the U.S. Census Bureau — later than usual due to the COVID-19 pandemic — means the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly officially can begin the once-a-decade process of redrawing legislative district boundaries to account for population shifts.

Hoosiers learned months ago that Indiana's 2020 population of 6,785,528 inhabitants, a 4.7% increase compared to 2010, entitles the state to retain its nine representatives in the U.S. House. Each of the 50 states are guaranteed two members in the U.S. Senate.

Join Sandy Curry, Willie Hall, and Michael Quiroz as they ride for Superior Ambulance in East Chicago

But the Constitution requires state lawmakers to adjust the current district lines to ensure a nearly equal number of people are contained in each congressional district, along with the 100 Indiana House districts, and 50 Indiana Senate districts.

Democrats have criticized the state's redistricting process because it essentially allows Republican state lawmakers to continue dominating Indiana government by drawing new district boundaries that favor their members.

Statehouse Republicans, on the other hand, have pledged to draw new districts that are fair, and comply with all applicable state and federal laws.

The General Assembly is expected to publish preliminary maps in late August or early September for Hoosiers to review.

It then will convene in mid- to late-September to assess, debate, and enact the new maps into law.

The new districts will be in effect for the 2022 elections when the seats of all nine congressmen, all 100 state representatives, and 25 of the 50 state senators will be on the ballot.

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