Growth projected in west-central Minnesota counties
ADA – Ask Mayor Woody Roux for a tour of the town he’s called home for 24 years, and like a proud father, he’ll walk you down Main Street highlighting all the amenities: a movie theater, radio station, newspaper, pizza parlor and celebration hall.
“We have a grocery store that’s a going concern,” he said. “We have a good hardware store.”
Sure, the main drag has a handful of vacant storefronts. But as Roux points out, Ada, the Norman County seat, is far from hard times. Nonetheless, there’s still the issue of the town’s population.
U.S. census numbers show that from 1950 to 2000, the number of Ada residents dropped 21 percent. In the following decade, the population increased 3 percent and seemed to pull out of that dive. But that gain was lost over the next two years with a decline of 3.2 percent, according to the most recent census estimates, which put the town’s 2012 population at 1,652.
“Where they would have gone, I don’t know,” Roux said of those former residents. “I don’t see it within Main Street.”
This is a story playing out across Minnesota as populations gravitate toward what demographers call regional job centers, or what everyone else calls bigger cities. But the story isn’t that simple.
Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota researcher, says it’s often the 18- to 25-year-old age group that leaves rural areas and heads to urban counties for college and work. But when they reach the 30- to 50-year-old age bracket, many move to small towns with their families in search of security, a slower pace of life and lower housing costs, he said.
“Since the 1970s, there’s been a revival of our rural communities in the sense that, you know, no longer are people just flooding away from our small towns at all ages,” he said. “It seems counterintuitive because we tend to hear nothing but doom and gloom about our rural communities.”
Looking to the future, population growth is projected for the west-central counties of Clay, Becker, Mahnomen, Otter Tail, Norman and Wilkin between 2010 and 2025, ranging from 18.6 percent in Becker County to 6.8 percent in Norman County, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center. Growth is predicted in 83 of the state’s 87 counties over the same period.
Among the west-central counties, populations in Wilkin, Otter Tail and Norman declined or held steady from 2010 to 2013, according to census estimates, which Winchester says can be unreliable because of their margin of error. Becker and Mahnomen counties have seen notable growth, both with 2.2 percent, but Clay County has led the way with 2.8 percent, census estimates show.
From 2010 to 2012, Fargo’s population grew 4 percent, and with that came 2.6 percent growth in Moorhead, west-central Minnesota’s largest city, according to census estimates. This growth has been mirrored in the enrollment numbers at Moorhead Public Schools, Superintendent Lynne Kovash said.
Enrollment increased 3 percent from 2011 to 2012; 1.7 percent from 2012 to 2013; and another 2 percent uptick is projected over the next few years, Kovash said. School officials see the growth as a plus, but it’s tricky accommodating the influx of students while also maintaining class sizes – a goal the district has succeeded at so far, she said.
“We are in a space crunch,” she said. “Our elementary schools are at capacity.”
Census estimates show the city in the region with the greatest population increase from 2010 to 2012 was Detroit Lakes, with 2.8 percent growth. This upswing can be linked to the city’s business boom, said Carrie Johnston, head of the local chamber of commerce.
“When they changed Highway 10 from an S-curve to straight through town, that gave the city of Detroit Lakes a couple of acres to develop right in the heart of our downtown. So we’ve had some business growth right there,” she said, estimating that 13 new businesses have opened in downtown in the past few years.
Johnston said the city’s medical facilities and manufacturers expanded, and in turn, the need for housing rose. She said an apartment complex is slated to be built, and plans for two others are in development; the supply of single-family houses remains limited.
“As far as residential and commercial, there’s still lots of places for growth, but we don’t have too many open storefronts,” she said.
Despite the buzz around areas like Detroit Lakes and Fargo-Moorhead, Patrick Lee has opted for small-town life. The 28-year-old grew up in Ada, and after attending college and working in Fargo and Moorhead, he returned to his hometown, where he now is a warranty administrator at a farm implement dealership and volunteers with a civic organization.
“Being at the age that I’m at, it’s a lot easier to be able to give back to the community that I grew up in,” he said.
Though Lee hasn’t entered his 30s, it’s not a stretch to say that he’s part of a demographic group in its prime earning years that’s positioned to help the rural communities they have moved into – a phenomenon that Winchester has dubbed “brain gain.”
Lee said he and his fiancée, a third-grade teacher, plan to get married next month. The two have talked about starting a family, and they see Ada as a good place to raise kids.
“We’ve bought a house. We’ve got good jobs,” he said. “We’ve got no reason to go anywhere else.”