The Mat-Su Borough’s four-decade-long growth doesn’t look to be waning anytime soon, even as its southern neighbor struggles.
According to a June report from the Alaska Dept. of Labor, the Mat-Su is the only area of the state with consistent positive net migration, and one of just three places that gains residents from other areas of Alaska.
Many new Mat-Su residents come from Anchorage, which while steadily shrinking, still remains the largest community in Alaska. In 2021, 2,932 people left Anchorage for the land-rich Mat-Su Valley. On the flip side, just 1,517 Valley residents moved to the big city.
Overall, the Mat-Su grew 2.4% in 2022, while Anchorage endured a fifth straight year of population decline.
Mat-Su growth is nothing new. Between 2010 and 2022, the region gained 22,757 residents while Anchorage lost more than 2,000. This steady expansion means the Mat-Su is now the second-most populous borough in Alaska, with a 2022 population of 111,752. Together the Mat-Su and Anchorage (289,000 people) are the only areas of Alaska with more than 100,000 people – comprising about 55% of the state’s total population.
While the 25,260-square-mile Mat-Su Borough was once primarily a residential area that fed off of Anchorage, it increasingly provides its own services, which has generated even greater economic activity, the state report notes.
“For example, Mat-Su’s health care sector grew 74 percent over the past decade, meaning fewer Valley residents needed to seek care in Anchorage,” the report states. Other Valley industries have also expanded — a growing number of “headquarters”-type companies that provide services to other parts of the state have chosen Mat-Su as their home base. Examples include the Goose Creek prison, which houses inmates from all over Alaska; Cruz Construction, which takes on projects statewide; and Denali Brewing Company.”
Unlike most other areas of Alaska, the Mat-Su did not experience massive pandemic-related job losses. While the state lost 26,000 jobs in 2020, the Mat-Su temporarily lost just 1% of its jobs before fully recovering by the end of that year. By 2022, Mat-Su employment hit a new all-time high, which is expected to occur again this year.
Population growth and more lenient Covid policies were likely a factor in the Mat-Su’s resiliency during Covid. Many Anchorage residents took the one-hour drive into Palmer or Wasilla to eat out or buy merchandise. In 2020, Anchorage lost 9% of its retail jobs and 21% of its bar and restaurant jobs. By contrast, the Mat-Su’s eating and drinking employment fell by just 10%, while its retail market actually grew by 7% during Covid.
Remote working also helped the Mat-Su’s economy.
“Many of the usual commuters to Anchorage turned to telework, and as a result, they spent more of their consumer dollars in the local economy instead further boosting local retailers and restaurants at Anchorage’s expense,” the state report noted. “Anecdotal evidence further suggests some Anchorage residents sought services in the Valley that they would have typically consumed closer to home.”
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While less devastating than Anchorage, the Mat-Su did feel the impact of Covid policies. As with much of the state, many residents lost their jobs in 2020 when the area’s unemployment rate hit 13.4%. By April of 2022, however, Mat-Su’s unemployment was just 4.9%.
Much of the Mat-Su job losses were due to the fact that more than 40% of residents still commute to work outside the Valley (including 28% who work in Anchorage), where employment challenges were more pronounced during Covid.
Overall, more affordable housing remains a strong selling point for living in the Valley.
“In 2022, the average sales price of a home was $422,490 in the Valley and $468,843 in Anchorage,” the state report found. That translated to far more construction. In 2022, half of all newly constructed Alaska homes were built in the Valley, even though the Mat-Su is home to just 15% of the state’s population.