How many people live in Grand Forks?
It depends who you ask.
Recent U.S. census estimates put the 2020 population at about 56,000 — extrapolating from earlier figures using things like tax returns, death and birth certificates and the like. The local Metropolitan Planning Organization puts it closer to 62,000, relying more on new housing and vacancy rates.
The exact answer is out there, living right next door. But the scale of most American communities makes it more or less impossible to know with precision. Hence: estimates.
And that, City Hall now says, is where the trouble starts.
State aid payments and state highway tax distributions depend on U.S. census population estimates, at least in part, as total funding for Grand Forks is calculated. So for top leaders at City Hall, a gap in the numbers looks like less money from Bismarck than they might deserve.
Mayor Brandon Bochenski is particularly frustrated, pointing out that, between 2016 and 2020, the census estimates for Grand Forks’ population dipped from 56,935 to 55,950. But he cites local data on housing that he said shows 1,367 new housing units and a lower apartment vacancy rate.
“You tell me how we lost a thousand (residents) when we added 1,400 dwelling units,” Bochenski said.
Kevin Iverson, a demographer with the state Department of Commerce, has a theory. Tax returns are an important part of how the federal government comes up with its estimates. Students who might have filed elsewhere during the pandemic could easily have brought down Grand Forks’ population numbers, given how heavily UND figures into the local population.
It’s tough to tell exactly how much these kinds of gaps affect funding in Grand Forks. City Finance Director Maureen Storstad points out that state aid payments, in particular, are tied not just to Grand Forks’ population, but to its population in proportion to the rest of the state.
Perhaps you’re wondering where the actual census data — from that big, door-to-door to-do last year — enters this conversation. Those figures are expected to be released in coming weeks and months, local leaders say. They’ll affect some big streams of money, like the federal dollars sent to the state.
They’ll be closely watched by City Hall and beyond. There’s an extraordinary amount of funding hanging on those census numbers, too, and local leaders want what they deserve.
There are some reasons for caution, though. Grand Forks, just like everywhere in the U.S., saw widespread fear of an undercount last year as the COVID pandemic disrupted census operations. And Iverson points out that Grand Forks, long term, is growing more slowly than Fargo. The city’s neighbor to the south, he said, has become a kind of people magnet.
"What it really shows is the economic gravity, where Fargo has become a larger planet that's sucking things in. If you look at the cities around the Fargo, West Fargo area, the smaller cities are starting to grow,” Iverson said. But, he added, that’s not the case for cities like Grand Forks, which are too far away to see that kind of benefit — just the gravitational pull.
And sometimes, the census actually revises a city’s population downward. Iverson shared data showing that, after the 2010 census, Bismarck actually had its 2009 estimate toggled back by nearly 1% of its population.
Earl Haugen, the executive director of the local Metropolitan Planning Organization, is used to this kind of hand-wringing about population counts.
So about how often does it happen?
“Every 10 years,” he said.