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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Rural Minnesota’s Future Challenge, Potential

July 11, 2014 By John Van Hecke, Publisher

Minnesota will look different 30 years from now. We’ll be older and more racially and ethnically diverse but its where people live and work that really leaps out. Demographic analysis suggest that we’re creating two Minnesotas. One will be the growing and employing Minnesota. The other will be a shadow of the first.

Data analysis from the Minnesota State Demographic Center, drawing on US Census information, projects that Minnesota’s 2015 population will be just shy of 5.5 million. The seven county Twin Cities metro area will account for 2.9 million, representing about 47% of the state’s population. Over the next 30 years, that percentage will remain essentially constant. Yet, population is projected to grow by 13% by 2045.

Don’t be misled by these figures. The Twin Cities is growing at a slightly faster rate than the projected state growth rate. An estimated 2015 Twin Cities population of 2,930,059 will increase to 3,373,252 in 30 years. We’re going to feel 400,000 additional people in our schools, on our roads, at community celebrations and in our stores. The population expansion reinforces the seven county metropolitan region’s role as Minnesota’s economic driver. But, the effective Twin Cities will surpass the seven county metro area, stretching from St Cloud to Rochester.

The other great growth areas will be, in keeping with metro growth, southeast Minnesota, central Minnesota and southwest central Minnesota. State economic development regions (EDR) 10, 7W, and 6E respectively. These three regions are projected to grow, from 2015-2045, by 14.6%, 25.2%, and 14.2%, in the same order.

Again, don’t be misled by these figures. The percentage growth obscures the population’s relative weight. The most populous economic development region, the seven county metro area, starts big, grows a bunch and ends big. Combined with central, southeast, southwest central, the four EDRs account for 72% of the state’s population.

Conversely, Minnesota’s least populated areas will lose population during this period or grow so slowly that the growth barely counts. The Arrowhead Region, EDR 3, is projected to decline by 3.5%. EDR 6W, the Upper Minnesota Valley, is expected to grow by 1%. It shouldn’t come as surprise that Minnesota’s least peopled areas will struggle to hold their own with generational succession. While St Cloud, Minneapolis, St Paul and Rochester become, effectively, a single, continuous metropolitan area, the Arrowhead and western Minnesota will be lucky to hang on to their population.

These are very different parts of Minnesota and will experience population stagnation for very different reasons. The Arrowhead combines Iron Range mining, forest industries and tourism. Duluth is the area’s service center hub for an EDR population of 332,000. Minnesota’s forestry community has traditionally created paper products, specialty papers in particular. But, magazine publishing is in rapid decline and so, too, are specialty papers. Mining is a mature industry with slow growth. Tourism reflects larger economic trends. When people are making money through wage increases and widely shared wealth expansion, they feel more economically secure and spend on travel and recreation. But, the reverse is equally true, resulting in tourism’s economic development limitations.

EDR 7W is a different story. Roughly 45,000 Minnesotans live in Big Stone, Chippewa, Lac Qui Parle, Swift and Yellow Medicine counties. Farming is the area’s great industry with other activities functioning in support. Farming in 2014 requires many, many fewer farmers than it did in 1914 or even 1984. They’re farming roughly the same number of acres a hundred years later, achieving unimaginable output. But, the labor/technology nexus making it possible also limits population growth.

Glacial retreat created the Upper Midwest prairie’s crop productivity capacity. Only population sparcity limited crop production but even that limitation was toppled as northern European and Scandinavian immigrants populated Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, and Nebraska. While almost anyone could farm, labor shortages limited farm size. The family farm wasn’t just a family, it was a production unit.

Tractors and other ag machines changed everything. Fewer people could and did do more. Farming’s family and community sustainability scale changed.

Lac Qui Parle county’s population peaked with the 1920 census at 15,554. 90 years later, that figure was less than half the 1920 number. Repeat this phenomenon and you have EDR 6W’s story. Technological transformation is affecting both the Arrowhead and the Upper Minnesota Valley regions, just differently. The net result, however, is the same: stagnation.

Demographic projections aren’t fixed in stone. They contain immutable truths but not constants. The two 2045 Minnesotas can still be a single Minnesota if we plan and invest accordingly. Rural Minnesota is an asset, not a liability. Public physical and intellectual infrastructure creates opportunity, economic growth and family stability. This is as true in Lac Qui Parle county’s Madison as it is in Minneapolis. A stable, well-educated workforce; access to electrical power; ample water; buildings; and space, combined with high functioning local government, is a development dream. Read the data and learn the lessons. Don’t miss the potential.

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