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Continued: Suburbs are showing their age

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Last update: March 23, 2011 - 9:18 AM

It's what he doesn't hear in church that tells Tom Egan his suburb is changing.

What happened to all the noise? The crying babies, the toddlers wriggling free from the pew? Why is everything so staid and so hushed nowadays? Where are the children?

"It gives you a little pause for concern when your community is aging like that," the former mayor of Eagan said quietly one afternoon at Applebee's, fingering his water glass. "It really does."

Recent as its growth still seems, Eagan already is turning gray. Its once-jammed classrooms have lost more than 1,000 students. Its population is sagging. Admissions to Cascade Bay, its water park, have dropped by more than 70,000 a summer. Rounds of mini-golf are down by almost 50 percent in just three years.

The graying of Eagan -- and that whole halo of '80s and '90s suburbs that Minnesotans persist in thinking of as "young" -- is one more sign of the age wave that is about to sweep over Minnesota, and it is creating quiet fissures within every institution they contain, from rec centers to real estate offices. A world with many fewer kids and many more grandparents is a world these places have never known and for which they are ill-suited.

"The future stretches before us as very different from the decade we just left, and almost a lifetime away from the previous decade, or really the past 30 to 40 years," said demographer Hazel Reinhardt. "We old people are going to multiply and take over the earth."

Time is short, planners tell local leaders. Denial can be fatal. "By the time everyone in the pews seems to be 70 years old, and you're down to two kids in your third-grade Sunday School class, and the very few young parents are starting to think: 'What are we doing here?' it's pretty tough to turn things around," said Cindy Gregorson, director of congregational development for the United Methodist Church.

The aging pattern started some years ago in big cities, spread to the Brooklyn Centers of the inner ring, then to the Bloomingtons, and is now creeping into Eden Prairie and a host of other places that still have that new-suburb smell.

Some of the most acute tensions will arise in cities that invested a fortune in fancy public facilities for kids -- and now find the demand dwindling.

Take Apple Valley and its aquatics center.

"It's expensive to maintain and operate," said parks and rec chief Randy Johnson. "Trained staff, chemicals, lifeguards -- it takes a lot of money.''

After opening 10 years ago, the center grew steadily for five years, then leveled off. A portion of a $14 million parks referendum went into a "lazy river'' and two slides to jump-start attendance, much as Valleyfair updates each year.

"But last year,'' Johnson said, "was probably the lowest attendance in five or six years. We think it's weather." But the city is also rowing against a demographic current: "Each class in our schools has been smaller now for quite a while."

Prior Lake is asking similar questions about parks. In the go-go development years, its store of parkland exploded, from 569 acres to nearly 1,000. But how many years do kids play on swings?

"Each new development tends to get a park," said Mayor Mike Myser. "But no one looks at it as a whole. We want to totally review our parks plan, as a matter of demographics and economics. Some parks could just be green space."

An aging population can also create expensive new demands. In suburbs as unlikely as Apple Valley, Savage and Lakeville, older residents have gotten or are asking for costly new facilities. "The senior population is growing in Shakopee," 70-year-old Tom Schaff told members of the city council not long ago. "We need places to go, things to do!''

In Savage, one of the youngest cities of its size in the nation, a citizen survey found greater support for a senior center (66 percent) than for an ice arena (54 percent). "We're not old yet," said Mayor Janet Williams, 70. "But it'll come."

To be sure, an aging population has its advantages.

In Dakota County, juvenile crime is plummeting: Felonies peaked in 2001 and have dropped by 55 percent. Economic development is getting a boost from facilities that cater to the health needs of an aging population. New chain drug stores are being flung across the suburban landscape at the rate of one every 30 days.

Some of the benefits are social, as communities benefit from an army of shrewd retirees and able volunteers. In Shakopee a group of white-hairs gathers weekly around the fireplace at Panera Bread for "Trivia Tuesday," asking one another questions like, "Who said, 'It's not true I don't have anything on, I have the radio on?' " In Eden Prairie the parlor of the historic Smith Douglas More House rings with the laughter of seniors who pack a long table with their mugs of Dunn Bros. coffee.

For institutions that are willing to adapt, the demographic wave creates opportunities. Just ask Lee Ehmke, director of the Minnesota Zoo. Smelling change, he's up-aging the zoo from a place for kiddies and Cokes in a mall-like food court to a place that also offers wine tastings. Last year he added "Brew at the Zoo.''

But problems there will be.

Transportation woes

Suburbs thrown up in recent decades were created for people in cars, yet many of their residents are now reaching an age where they will be dangerous behind the wheel.

That one truth carries immense implications. Suburbanites often wondered why Minnesota was spending so much money to subsidize light-rail transit when they needed new highway lanes. Now they can brace for this: The subsidy for the costliest form of public transit -- collecting seniors in cul-de-sac suburbs one by one -- is more than 10 times higher, per passenger, than the subsidy for the Hiawatha Line.

Already that trend is leading to severe tensions. The Metropolitan Council, whose demographics arm makes it one of the quickest to understand the implications of these trends, has taken the region's patchwork dial-a-ride system and given it a violent shake. Some folks gained service; others lost. In Dakota County alone, residents at 18 of 23 senior housing facilities have been told to stop calling dial-a-ride unless they have a certified disability -- and climb on a regular bus instead.

If transportation looms as the No. 1 challenge for local governments, for the average suburbanite it may well be the value of a home.

The League of Cities is warning that the population of childless couples and singletons will grow 30 times faster in coming years than households with married couples and children.

"Will we have a surplus of McMansions?" demographer Reinhardt asked a lunchtime audience of homebuilders in Roseville this past spring, peering over her reading glasses as if to brace for pushback.

Instead someone shouted, "We already do, don't we?"

Already cities and counties are feeling the effects. In Eden Prairie alone, property values dropped by more than $1 billion over the last two years. Across Hennepin County, the estimated market value of homes plunged by $13 billion between 2007 and 2010.

To be sure, the two most quintessentially '80s and '90s suburban counties -- Woodbury's Washington and Lakeville's Dakota -- are neither poor nor heavily taxed compared to their peers. Roughly a third of their households make more than $100,000 a year -- half-again higher than the state average. But the outer suburbs are also facing the reality that the foundation of their growth -- their appeal to families with children -- is dwindling. That means money will be tight.

"The Met Council still has us growing ad infinitum," said Myser, Prior Lake's mayor. "But that clearly isn't the reality any more. We need to re-evaluate where we're going to be in 20 years."

Perhaps the toughest challenge of all: the psychic adjustment of grasping that young communities are not as young as they once were.

"I was a member of the St. Croix Valley business and professional women's group," said Yvonne Klinnert, the former editor of the Stillwater Courier, "and our last meeting was in May. It went defunct.''

Since then, Klinnert has attended a few meetings of the American Association of University Women of the St. Croix Valley.

"They're not on the precipice of closing,'' Klinnert said. ''But I'm 51, and I think I'm the youngest one there."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023

  • about this series

  • The Twilight Zone series by Star Tribune reporters explores the ways, good and bad, that an aging population will change Minnesota.
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