When Pembina Mayor Michael Fitzgerald speaks of his northeast North Dakota community, he paints a picture of a small, but thriving, town.
Its biggest employer, Motor Coach Industries, has experienced the same staffing issues as the rest of the country, but remains a major factor in drawing new people to the area. Recently, Fitzgerald has noticed more families with children. Pembina’s daycare, started in 2019, is full of kids and he estimates the number of children in preschool through fifth grade doubles the number of students in sixth grade through high school. Fundraising for a Frisbee golf course and splash pad are underway.
According to the 2020 census, Pembina has a population of 512, a decrease of 80 since 2010 and a 13.51% loss. Fitzgerald said the city auditor’s count of population in 2021 is 530. According to Fitzgerald, the census numbers don’t paint a full picture of what’s happening in Pembina.
“When you look at the numbers that way, it doesn’t look very good at all. We actually don’t have very many houses that are empty, and if they are, they’re getting condemned,” said Fitzgerald. “We actually have a waiting list for people to get into apartments here in Pembina.”
Overall, the U.S. Census Bureau's 2020 North Dakota count saw a 7.4% increase in population, growing from 672,591 residents in 2010 to 779,094 in 2020. But the state’s population has grown primarily in cities like Fargo, Bismarck, Williston, Grand Forks, Dickinson and Minot. Across the state, census numbers show a trend of small towns losing residents, while bigger cities, and the small towns near them, grow.
The shift from rural to urban population is nothing new. Kevin Iverson, manager of the North Dakota State Data Center, said North Dakota has been seeing populations leave small towns and move to larger cities for years. Iverson explained that many of the towns in rural North Dakota have an ag-based economy, and over time, fewer people have been needed to support the industry. With fewer jobs in rural areas, people drift toward urban centers.
“Farmers have certainly become more efficient, tractors have become larger,” said Iverson. “It’s becoming more mechanized, machines have become bigger and fewer people are required to operate them. I think that’s probably going to continue.”
The trend of leaving rural areas is especially popular among the 18-34 age group.
“It’s kind of last in, first out. What I mean by that is if you turn 18 in a small town and there are no jobs available, you’re going to end up going where the jobs are at,” said Iverson. “You don’t have a lot, so it’s really pretty easy to move at that age.”
Fitzgerald is not the only small-town mayor surprised by the results of the 2020 census. Around the region, other mayors also say the census numbers don't match what they see in their communities.
Blaine Scott, mayor of Rolette, said he does not believe the count to be accurate, especially with Rolette County seeing a drop in population as well. Lauri Rysavy, mayor of Michigan, said she has noticed more families with young children in town.
Mike Belanus, mayor of Walhalla, believes the COVID-19 pandemic may have resulted in inaccuracies in the census. Walhalla’s official count in the 2020 census was 893. Compared to the 2010 count of 996, the town is down 10.34%.
“Personally, I don’t really see that in my community. I don’t really see that hundred-person decline. We’ve got people going, but we also have people coming back,” said Belanus.
The U.S. Census Bureau performs studies to check the accuracy of the decennial census, but Iverson said the results of those studies have not yet been released, and he does not expect to see them anytime soon. Until then, the accuracy of the census is unknown.
Meanwhile, Thompson, a town of 986 in 2010, saw an 11.66% increase in population, as reported by the 2020 census. The census reported 1,101 residents of Thompson in 2020. Located 11 miles south of Grand Forks, Thompson’s proximity to the bigger city may explain the town’s population growth, says Travis Fretheim, Thompson City Council member.
“A lot of people want to be in small-town settings for the education and also for their kids to have more access to sports and extracurricular activities, and also just live that small-town life, yet have a big-town job,” said Fretheim.
Iverson describes Thompson as a bedroom community. He said many small towns around Fargo, Bismarck and other bigger cities in the state have undergone a similar shift, from ag communities to bedroom communities.
“People live there but will tend to work in the larger city. They like that small-town atmosphere, but want to be where the jobs are at, or close to where the jobs are at,” said Iverson.
Thompson’s biggest barrier to growth is space. Right now, the town lacks land for development and, according to Mayor Dean Larimer, the only way to acquire more is to buy land from nearby farmers. Larimer is worried that if Thompson continues to grow, the supply of space will not be able to keep up with the demand for development.
“We’re kind of stuck in that position where we probably could grow larger, but we just don’t have the room right now,” said Larimer.
Despite many small towns in North Dakota losing population, they are increasing in diversity. Iverson used Grafton as an example.
“Grafton showed a loss over the last decade of 114 people, but if you count just their non-Hispanic white population, they would have lost 538 people. However, they gained in all their other categories," said Iverson. “They gained significantly in terms of their Hispanic population. They were up 311 Hispanic people, and then they gained some other individuals who identify themselves as some other race.”
Iverson cites North Dakota’s economy and job opportunities as reasons the state is continuing to grow in population and diversity.