If you had to name the Minnesota county recently called the happiest and healthiest in the United States — not to mention the best-educated and wealthiest in the state — you might not immediately think of Carver County. Even if you live in Carver County.
The growth of manufacturing, technology and other industries in Carver has moved well-paid employees to the southwest metro, said Todd Graham, the Metropolitan Council’s principal forecaster. And the influx of well-heeled newcomers has inspired Carver’s quiet communities to serve up new attractions: wineries and brewpubs, an ax-throwing arcade, a whiskey lounge and a museum about the world-famous musician who lived and worked in Chanhassen.
A national financial website has judged Carver County the happiest in the country for two years straight and among the top five for three years before that, based on residents’ high participation in physical activity and low divorce rate.
U.S. News & World Report ranked Carver the eighth healthiest county nationwide this year, noting it scored below national averages on obesity, violent crime and exposure to unsafe drinking water. And a data analysis site last month rated Carver the most educated county in Minnesota and in the top 2% nationally of 3,142 counties.
Health, education and happiness are highly correlated with wealth, studies show, and Carver is a leader in that category, too. Median household income, $93,100, is just a shade below Scott’s $93,200; the median income for the seven-county metro area is $73,700.
Strolling past animal barns and corn dog stands last week at the Carver County Fair in Waconia, some locals expressed surprise at the rankings. But Cindy Worm, a lifelong county resident, didn’t need the numbers to confirm that change has come to the largely agricultural metro-area county whose population has more than tripled over her 53 years.
“It’s amazing,” said Worm, a Waconia resident who grew up in Victoria. “It’s nothing like what it used to look like.”
Judging by Carver County’s quality-of-life stats, the effort to balance trendy with quaint has been largely successful, though some who treasure rural tranquility aren’t thrilled about the hubbub.
When Worm was a kid, the family had to drive 16 miles to St. Louis Park to shop at Target. Now there’s a Target just 6 miles away in Chanhassen, amid chains ranging from Total Wine to Buffalo Wild Wings and Life Time fitness.
On the other hand, her family never worried about locking their doors. Now, with “so many more people you don’t know” in the area, she keeps the house locked even when she’s at home.
“You remember those old days and you wish you’d cherished them more than you did,” Worm said.
Carver is Minnesota’s fastest-growing county, according to the Met Council. It counts 106,000 residents, up 16% since 2010 — a rate comparable to hot spots such as Seattle and Denver, and higher than the Twin Cities’ growth rate for that period of about 9%.
In the last three decades, Chaska, the county seat and largest city, has doubled its population to 28,000; same with Chanhassen, the second-largest city, which has 26,000 residents. Smaller towns on the county’s eastern side have ballooned even more dramatically; numbers in Victoria and Waconia have quadrupled, and the city of Carver has grown sixfold, to more than 4,700.
The county got another boost in 2008, when commuting times to Minneapolis were slashed with the opening of Hwy. 212, a four-lane, 65-mph freeway connecting to major metro-area highways.
“The metro area has been pushing outward for half a century,” said Graham. “In the 1980s and even more so in the 1990s, the developed edge of that area has pushed out to Carver County.”
In recent years, large apartment projects have drawn opposition in Victoria and Chaska. Residents have complained about pastoral views being marred by new developments. But most seem accepting of change, said County Administrator David Hemze, perhaps because three-quarters of the county is still farms and undeveloped land.
“We don’t hear a lot of anti-growth feedback,” Hemze said. “Part of that is our zoning ordinances, which generally keep the growth within the cities and keep the rural characteristics rural.”
Carver County has long offered good schools, parks and biking trails, along with institutions of metrowide interest such as the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres and Hazeltine National Golf Club. Recent years have brought a flurry of smaller local projects and attractions.
Chaska opened its popular Curling Center in 2015 and is planning a downtown square with shops, restaurants, a stage and fire pits. In Chanhassen, Paisley Park, Prince’s one-time home and production complex, became a museum after the star’s 2016 death. Several wineries have opened in Waconia, where a recent groundbreaking heralded the expansion of a regional park.
Victoria has spiffed up its downtown, restoring old buildings so they look new and designing new buildings so they look old. A new entertainment center called Victoria Burrow offers ax-throwing, mini golf and arcade games. Leaders are discussing plans to expand the downtown into undeveloped land with shops, restaurants and housing.
A few years ago, longtime Waconia restaurateurs Kim and Kevin Heenie were encouraged to open an eatery in a former creamery in downtown Victoria. Winchester & Rye opened this year, a casually upscale restaurant and whiskey lounge serving spirits made in Waconia. Kim Heenie said she didn’t think it would have worked before downtown’s makeover.
“I think [the city] has definitely evolved,” she said.
For longtime resident Mark Pask, Waconia is getting too big and busy. He and his wife, Kathy, are considering looking for open space farther west.
“All around us, it’s just closing in,” Pask said. “Our little cul-de-sac here used to be fields and birds. Now we’ve got neighborhoods everywhere. … As the metro expands, you end up losing that small-town feel.”
Carmen Gesinger grew up in Waconia, left for 10 years and then returned to the city. She works for the Chamber of Commerce so she’s not impartial, but at the county fairgrounds last week she talked about looking forward to the band playing at the Entertainment Center and the crowd of friends expected to gather there as they had for years.
“It feels like — oh, what’s the word I’m looking for?” Gesinger said. “It feels like home.”