DEVILS LAKE – The 2020 census is the first to report population growth in Devils Lake since the 1990 census.

The most recent count reports that Devils Lake’s population grew from 7,141 in 2010 to 7,192 in 2020, an increase of 0.71%. While the population gain isn't much, Mayor Dick Johnson says the increase is a step in the right direction.

“We seem to be in more of a rebound, and we’re starting to come back,” said Johnson. “There’s more activity, and economic activity is good.”

Johnson thinks the population’s upward trend can be attributed to a combination of factors, but he believes the work put into Devils Lake’s downtown is part of the reason the town is gaining, and will continue to gain, population. In 2017 the the Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce launched a program to reinvest in the downtown area, and in 2020, the city won the Main Street Excellence Award from the state for its downtown revitalization.

“We completely redid our downtown area, and I think it’s attracted some businesses and some people in,” said Johnson. “A lot of stores that were vacant downtown are now filled.”

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The city’s population saw its biggest drop between 1990 and 2000, losing 560 people in the 10-year period. Mike Connor, a Devils Lake resident and former city administrator, attributes much of this loss to the flooding the city experienced in the early 1990s. During this time, lake levels rose, leading to the destruction, relocation and buyouts of many houses in the floodplain. He said many people dislocated by the flooding stayed in the area, but moved out of the community.

“I personally know of quite a few people who have left Devils Lake and moved out to, I’ll call them suburbs, but not in the city limits,” said Connor.

In recent years, the city has made progress in adding more housing. Johnson said there are two new 24-unit apartments that already are full, and another is under construction in the eastern part of town.

Brad Barth, executive director of Forward Devils Lake, still sees a lot of room for improvement in the city. The nonprofit organization he works for promotes economic development in Devils Lake by helping businesses in the area begin, relocate and expand, but a near stagnant population makes it challenging for the town to grow economically. One area he pinpoints as a weak spot for Devils Lake is retaining younger populations.

“We've got to find ways to make the community more attractive, so that younger people want to come back or want to return,” said Barth.

In an effort to retain young workers, the Forward Devils Lake runs a workforce recruitment and retention program called “20 by 20.” The organization, in partnership with participating local businesses, reimburses a student for up to 80% of the costs at a technical college if the student commits to returning to the community to work at the business funding them for the following three years.

The U.S. Census Bureau has not yet released data about five-year age groups from the 2020 census.

The most recent census data also indicates that Devils Lake is growing in diversity. While the population of white residents in the city decreased from 5,917 in 2010 to 5,394 in 2020, populations of people who are Black, American Indian, Asian, Native Hawaiian and two or more races all increased. The Hispanic or Latino population in Devils Lake also grew.

While the city is not doing anything specific to attract diverse populations, Johnson says Lake Region State College, economic opportunities in the town and proximity to the Spirit Lake Dakota Reservation all contribute to the town’s growing diversity.

“I think there are opportunities in Devils Lake for diverse communities to come to town and be treated well,” said Johnson.

Johnson expects Devils Lake will continue to grow in the next decade, especially with the investment in housing and reinvestment in downtown seen in this decade. He said between now and 2030, the city will continue on the path it has started down to continue to attract new people and grow the population.

“With economic development and tourism and fishing and hunting, we have to just continue to foster those types of activities and get people to come in,” said Johnson.