PALMER -- If the Matanuska-Susitna Borough keeps growing like it is now, the Ireland-sized municipality could hit 100,000 residents this year.
But even as that milestone surfaced Friday at a forum on demographics hosted by the Mat-Su Borough School District in Palmer, experts questioned the sustainability of the borough's rapid growth.
Mat-Su is far and away Alaska's fastest-growing borough and the only one with significant numbers of people still moving in from year to year, according to state demographer Eddie Hunsinger, essentially Alaska's people counter. The borough with a population just over 98,000 is increasing by about 2,000 people a year through a combination of migration and births.
The school district predicted about 350 new students this year, Superintendent Deena Paramo said. "And 746 showed up. So we're quite excited about that. We're not sure if that trend's going to continue."
State researchers say it's not clear if the Valley area's growth -- and its fairly healthy employment picture -- will carry into the future, especially given the state's precarious budget situation. Gunnar Knapp of the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage became the first economist to publicly say Alaska is headed for or already in a mild recession during Friday's forum.
The rate of Mat-Su's population increase has slowed since the last decade, when the population increased annually by 2,500 to 4,000 people, Hunsinger said.
"The big question is, what will 2015 look like?" he said, referring to a population analysis due out in January.
Employment is still growing in Mat-Su but may slow down, state economist Neal Fried told the room full of invited educators, elected officials and others with an interest in the Valley's population and economy. Employment grew by 3 percent in 2013, 4 percent last year and 3 percent in the first half of 2015.
"We've taken that for granted for the last 20 years," Fried said. "I'm not sure we're going to be able to continue to take that for granted during the next two to three years."
Mat-Su added 600 new jobs this year, he said. Government is the largest job sector -- the school district is the largest employer in the borough -- followed by leisure and hospitality, retail and construction.
But the place residents work offered at least one surprise: The number of residents working jobs on the North Slope has risen more here than anywhere else in the state, Fried said, from just over 1,200 in 2003 to about 3,100 in 2013. State economists, however, are getting word of Slope layoffs that will play out in coming years.
Roughly 30 percent of Mat-Su residents still commute to Anchorage, Fried also said.
Another surprising factoid from the economist known for his pithy comments and bow ties: the number of registered pickup trucks has declined in the Valley for the last three years ending in 2014 despite the Valley's stereotypical reputation as a truck-loving, frontier kind of place.
"You still remain very weird up here," Fried said. "You are the only place where the number of registered pickups continue to decline."
He started wondering out loud about "a major cultural …" before catching himself and chuckling.
"No, I don't know," Fried said. "I don't know what's happening in the Valley."