Serving the High Plains

Census: Tucumcari's population drops

Tucumcari’s population dropped slightly during the 2020 census compared to 10 years ago, but its percentage decline was smaller compared to many of the city’s previous census counts.

The actual count also significantly exceeded the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 estimate.

According to data recently released on the Census website, Tucumcari’s population was 5,278 on April 1, 2020. That compares to the 5,363 people counted by the census on April 1, 2010. That represented a 1.6% decline during the past decade.

Compared to many previous census counts, Tucumcari’s shrinkage was considerably less. In the period when the city’s population began trending downward starting in 1960, Tucumcari saw declines of 11.7% in 1970, 5.9% in 1980, 12.3% in 2000 and 10.5% in 2010.

The only time since 1950 that Tucumcari saw a population rise was 1990, when its number of residents rose by 1%.

Tucumcari’s people count significantly outpaced the U.S. Census’ population estimate of 4,867 people in 2019. That’s a difference of more than 400 people, or a nearly 10% difference.

“It’s good news that we haven’t dropped as much as they had anticipated, but I wish we hadn’t dropped one and a half percent,” Tucumcari Mayor Ruth Ann Litchfield said. “I hope we get an increase by the next census.”

Stacy Gimbel Vidal, a spokeswoman for the Census, stated in an email that Census data results generally have been in line with the bureau’s expectations.

That said, Quay County was an outlier in its actual population versus its forecasts, with Tucumcari a major driver in that. Quay was one of five counties in New Mexico that exceeded population forecasts by 5.1% or more. The others are Taos, Sierra, Luna and Eddy counties.

Litchfield expressed optimism for Tucumcari’s future, based on higher interest in shopping for homes in the city.

“Our housing (supply) right now is low, though there are still some for sale,” she said. “Talking to Realtors, we can definitely use rental houses. There are people wanting to move this way from California and Arizona and from up (in the Northeast) trying to get out of there before the winter. They’re wanting to get to a warmer climate, especially retired people.

“And now with this new cannabis (legalization), we’re having even more people looking. I feel like we’re going to grow more than we have.”

Tucumcari has been far from alone in population shrinkage. Many towns in the Great Plains have seen steep declines over the last several decades.

Quay County’s population fell from 9,041 people in April 1, 2010, to 8,746 by April 1, 2020. That was a decline of 3.3%.

Like Tucumcari, the county has seen a downward trend in population for about 70 years. It experienced drops of 12.1% in 1960, 11.2% in 1970, 6.2% in 2000 and 11% in 2010.

Quay County saw a small increase of 2.3% in population in 1990 — the only time the population rose since 1950.

Quay County’s actual count in 2020 also surpassed the Census estimate of 8,253 people in 2019. That was a difference of nearly 500 people, or nearly 6%.

Population changes of surrounding counties from April 1, 2010, to April 1, 2020: Curry, 0.1% increase; Roosevelt, 3.4% decline; Guadalupe, 5% decline; Harding, 5.5% decline; San Miguel, 7.5% decline; Union, 10.3% decline; and De Baca, 19% decline.

Curry County’s small population growth in the past 10 years was powered by Clovis, which saw a 2% increase, or about 800 more residents, in the past decade.

Given Quay County’s relatively small population decline and its better-than-expected count versus the Census 2019 estimate, county manager Daniel Zamora, who shepherded the county’s Census outreach last year when he was emergency management director, speculated the county’s efforts were successful.

“We mailed out postcards and put up banners, tried to do some outreach and share with people how they should respond (to the Census) and the importance of responding,” he said in a phone interview last week. “That may have improved our participation.”

Zamora said at county commission meetings last year that each undercounted resident would cost the county about $4,000 a year. There also had been concerns about undercounting due to complications caused by COVID-19 lockdowns at the time.

Zamora passed along thoughts on how the county can stabilize or grow its population in the future.

“In my opinion, we need some sort of industry that’s going to provide jobs that will keep people here,” he said. “That’s the No. 1 reason why young folks want to move away as soon as they’re old enough to because there’s more job opportunities in other places. We have to give young people more of a reason to stay.”

The U.S. Census had finalized data only for states, counties and cities of more than 5,000 people. It will release data for smaller towns and villages later.

New Mexico’s population rose by about 58,000 to 2.11 million by April 1, 2020, compared to the previous decade, an increase of 2.8%.

The population in the United States rose by about 22 million people during the past decade to more than 331 million people by April 1, 2020. That was a 7% increase.