Almost half of Minnesota counties lost population this decade (plus trivia question)

The list of Minnesota counties losing population grew in the past decade. Let me give you the details and then I’ll tell you how to win a rural Minnesota bar bet.

From the Canadian border to Iowa, from the Mississippi River to Lake Superior, counties that grew in the 1990s went into the losing-population column in the 10-year headcount the Census Bureau put out for Minnesota on Wednesday.

If you’re counting, 37 of the state’s 87 counties lost population. That’s up from 25 the previous decade. See the counties in beige on this map from the state demographer’s office. Obviously growth continued in the suburban Twin Cities, the Rochester area and the “vacation” corridor extending up into the north woods and lake country.

(But see my post yesterday for how that pattern can be misleading when it comes to suburban and exurban growth.)

2010 census map2.JPG

In the past, areas with declining populations tended to line up along the rural western and southern borders of the state. That trend has caused plenty of hand-wringing over the future of rural Minnesota. The new numbers will only intensify that concern because that pattern took a giant step east and toward the center of the state.

Every county on the northern border lost population in the 2000s except Cook, which added eight people.

In the center of the state Swift, Grant, Waseca and Sibley — including towns like Appleton, Benson, Elbow Lake, Waseca, Winthrop and Gaylord — joined the list of population-declining counties.

In the far southeast, Fillmore and Houston began losing population.

And of course, the biggest county to lose population was Ramsey in the heart of the metro area.

Now, here’s how you win your 2010 census bar bet: Exactly one of Minnesota’s 87 counties lost population in the 1990s but GAINED people during the first decade of the 2000s. Which was it?

ANSWER: In far northwestern Minnesota, Polk County, whose county seat is Crookston, took that distinction. The state’s 35th largest county, with a population of 31,600, picked up about 230 people in the latest census after losing a couple thousand in the 1990s.

County administrator Jack Schmalenberg was at a loss to explain the phenomenon this morning. The economy has been stable but no large employers moved in or expanded during the decade, he said. Anchors of the local economy are the University of Minnesota, with a campus in Crookston, and American Crystal Sugar, which operates two plants in the county.

He suggested the area might be getting a little shine from Grand Forks, N.D., where the economy has been strong.

The numbers aren’t big, but in a county that size and with the trends going the other way all around him, Schmalenberg said, “That’s significant for us.”

  • Gordon near Two Harbors

    While dropping populations can be a big problem for local governments and businesses, a stable or very slowly growing population is more likely to provide for a high quality of life for its residents.

    If you live in a rural (especially northern) county AND have a job, life is great –especially with the inter-connectedness with the rest of the world that has resulted from the coming of the internet. It’s paradise, if you like to be near or surrounded by nature and the types of recreation it offers.

    What you seldom hear about is the negative impacts on counties where populations have ballooned, and traffic congestion, sprawl, and taxes have all increased, while open space, nature, and personal freedom have diminished.

    Population growth in general is a bad thing. Even at a modest growth rate of one percent per year, the population doubles in something like 70 years. Can you imagine Minnesota with 11 or 12 million people? Our grandkids will certainly have a lower standard of living than we do. This is just plain common sense.

  • Dave Peters

    Interesting point, of course, Gordon. Thanks.

    I just looked through some census numbers Ben Winchester, a U of M population researcher, sent me and found the place in Minnesota that must hold some kind of record for the kind of stability you’re talking about.

    In 1900, the city of Wabasha had 2,528 people. In more than a century, it has varied down or up by a few hundred but now stands again at 2,521.

    Going on your theory, Gordon, I hope they all have jobs and that life is great.

  • Zebulun

    When I was a young hermit, I used to be of Gordon’s mindset. But then I got married and started a family. When you have a young family, a stable community and tax base is important. If the young adults are leaving or the retired people are dying (or both) that spells trouble for the few families left to hold the place together. When school enrollment drops, quality of life eventually suffers. It’s a tipping point for decline in general. When there is no one left to speak for a place, it begins to be taken for granted by the rest of the state, and the rest of the country.

    I will grant Gordon his general point. We can’t have population growth forever, nor can we grow the economy forever. That’s not sustainable. But if either one is in decline, we should at least take notice.