The Center for Rural Policy and Development issued its State of Rural Minnesota 2014 Report this week, including a number of compelling graphics about the current and projected economic status of Greater Minnesota counties.

The report might prompt different conclusions based on who reads it, but since I write about Northern Minnesota, I see a rather specific pattern centered on demographics, population movement and economic status.

Northern Minnesota will see uneven population and economic growth over the next few decades. The window to diversify our economy using our existing resources is open now, but closing fast.

Let me explain. Check this out:

Since 1990, the population of most Northern Minnesota counties actually increased. Despite the old narrative of total collapse, we have seen people move back to the region after the disastrous 1980s. Our region is still alive and still changing. In St. Louis County, population decreased on the Iron Range (as it has for more than 50 years), but Duluth and desirable lakeshore property more than made up for it at the county level. You really see this effect in Itasca, Hubbard, Crow Wing and Beltrami counties, places like Bemidji, Park Rapids, Brainerd and Grand Rapids. These areas become much more populous and remain attractive cities for workers and families in their prime.

But life is not necessarily easy in those counties, case in point:

You see it all the time here in Itasca County, and I know the same is true down by Brainerd and over by Bemidji. Stratification. Some have 4,000 square foot log homes on big lakes, and others work multiple jobs to feed a family and keep a basic two-bedroom apartment. The economic struggle native people face on reservations is real, and so are the cultural barriers that keep things the same for all people in poverty generation to generation. In the woods, all manner of problems are easy for people in the big city to ignore. Trust me on this one. I've lived it.

Looking forward, however, we see that the areas that have grown the most since 1990 will continue to grow faster than the region's biggest county: St. Louis.

By 2045, we see huge growth potential in Beltrami County (Bemidji) and notable growth in the Central Lakes region. We see population loss, however, in the Arrowhead -- due mostly to decline on my native Iron Range. (Broken down by city, I'd bet Duluth continues slow growth over the next 30 years). Stay with me now. Are you starting to see the divide between North Central and Northeastern Minnesota? Population (and poverty issues) in the North Central, and general decline and aging in the Northeast.

Here's what I mean by aging, in two consecutive graphics:

Wow, right? Look at how people over age 65 will dominate the Arrowhead after 2045. Incidentally, if all goes to plan, I'll be exactly 65 years old entering 2045. So, this is getting real. Where are the young people? The kids of our kids? Well, younger families will be more concentrated in North Central Minnesota counties.

In other words, if these projections prove true, we see two very different challenges for Northern Minnesota.

First, some counties will age dramatically (far faster than the state's general aging pattern). This is something Ron Brochu of Business North reported on after a Regional Economic Indicators Forum breakfast this week.

Between now and 2030, Minnesota will experience an unprecedented increase in the age 65 and older population group, said Andi Egbert, assistant director of the Minnesota Demographic Center. During that period, 265,000 older adults will join that age segment. "We have not ever been here before," she said, and the change could have several implications: 
  • Because older persons are retired, there will be less savings and greater consumption.
  • An older population will need more services, putting greater pressure on where public money will be spent.
  • The labor force likely won’t be large enough, and employers will have greater difficult hiring.
  • Costs for healthcare and long term care will grow.
  • There will be a shortage of caregivers.
Yet, "We do anticipate the state will grow," Egbert said, fueled largely by people migrating into Minnesota rather than the slight margin of births over deaths.

Yes, they're talking about the state as a whole, but the effects are more pronounced in Northeastern Minnesota, which is why I quote Brochu's story.

What about those younger demographics in North Central Minnesota? With the young families come the potential for more economic growth, but also the real possibility that if current poverty issues aren't addressed, we have every reason to believe they will continue, straining public resources just as they do now.

So, when we continue to press for economic diversification on the Iron Range, know that the reason is because smart people have a pretty good idea of what's coming if we don't fundamentally change our economy. And no, hoping for "thousands" of nonferrous mining jobs isn't the solution. Even if that happens (it won't; we'll get several hundred jobs spaced over a decade or two), mining jobs won't come fast enough or in sufficient numbers to alleviate the actual problem: lack of economic diversity.

Furthermore, when we talk about addressing poverty through affordable housing and affordable college education, the reason is because population growth alone does not assure prosperity. As the Iron Range learned during its boom 100 years ago, education, work ethic, upward mobility and ambition for our children can literally re-write the economic fate of individuals and families.

This, more than mining, hockey or street dances on the Fourth of July, is the amazing accomplishment of Iron Range culture.

These trains have left the station, but there's still a few switches we can pull. What's missing is a sense of urgency. You can't have a big train chase scene without a sense of urgency. Goodness, do you see what I see in these maps? What a challenge! What an opportunity! For those who call Northern Minnesota home, or imagine a life here in the Great North Woods, this is truly our time.

Older Post

Both parties lament missing opportunity in Northern Minnesota

Newer Post

Iron Range communities, schools must work together or suffer alone