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Northwest Minnesota holds its own

Northwestern Minnesota's population is holding pretty steady, according to the latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The 11-county region that stretches from Kittson in extreme northwestern Minnesota to Beltrami experienced a t...

Northwestern Minnesota's population is holding pretty steady, according to the latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The 11-county region that stretches from Kittson in extreme northwestern Minnesota to Beltrami experienced a total population increase of 1.0 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to the latest report, released Wednesday.

Beltrami County, the 17th fastest-growing county with an 8.9 percent population increase, is responsible for keeping the regional population on the plus side.

Without Beltrami, where lake resort town Bemidji is located, the 10-county northwestern region lost 2 percent of its population from 2000 to 2006.

"It's kind of consistent with what we've been looking at in numbers, especially with the more rural counties," said Leon Heath, executive director of the Northwest Regional Development Commission, based in Warren, Minn.


Corridor growth

Elsewhere in Minnesota, the population boom along the Interstate 94 corridor kept rumbling in 2006 as a pair of counties between the Twin Cities and St. Cloud were among the fastest growing the state, the Census Bureau reported.

The bureau's new population estimates show Sherburne and Wright counties both saw their populations increase by about a third since 2000. In real terms, the two counties have added more than 45,000 people - greater than the 2006 population of Kandiyohi County, which includes Willmar.

The fastest growing county in the state was Scott County, just southwest of Hennepin County. Its population grew nearly 39 percent to 124,092 from 2000 to 2006. Its growth rate was 21st in the nation, the census said.

Also among the top five was Carver County - just northwest of Scott County - and Isanti County on the northern edge of the metro. In fact, all the counties surrounding the metro area grew briskly.

"Basically, what we're doing is filling in the area between Rochester and the Twin Cities and St. Cloud," said State Demographer Tom Gillaspy. "The question is, 'Is that going to continue forever?'"

He said that while most indications are that those counties will continue to grow, the seeds of a countertrend are already visible. Most of the new housing in those counties was built for young families seeking larger homes with big yards.

"The kind of house that you are looking for when you have young children is quite different than what you look for when you are an empty nester," he said.


As the baby boom generation grays, they may start to gravitate toward townhouses that are closer to the conveniences of the Twin Cities, including health care facilities. "That could move people closer in," Gillaspy said.

There are no demographic trends, however, that suggest a quick reversal in the population losses of rural southwestern and western Minnesota, where the Census Bureau found the fastest declines from 2000 to 2006.

Industry leads

Besides Beltrami, just one other northwestern Minnesota county gained population. With growing industries such as Digi-Key and Arctic Cat in Thief River Falls, Pennington County showed a population gain of 0.9 percent, or 125 people, to 13,709.

Recent reports show Thief River Falls industries are adding 700 to 800 jobs a year. Many are commuting from smaller communities in the region.

"If you look at job creation in Pennington County, it has benefited the whole area," Heath said. "That prevents more population loss."

Kittson is at the other end of the spectrum. The county lost an estimated 594 residents - 11.2 percent of its population. Only Swift County had a larger percentage loss - 13.8 percent.

Norman County lost an estimated 8 percent, while Lake of the Woods County lost 4.3 percent.


Polk County lost 0.9 percent. Roseau County lost 0.8 percent.

Heath said Polk County still is feeling the effects of the Flood of 1997, when many residents moved away.

State demographers actually had projections showing that Roseau and Red Lake counties had gained population, while the Census Bureau had them losing.

"Roseau's been pretty level," he said. "The flood there in 2002 was a factor. They lost some population after that. People lose their houses, and some older people might have left."

"Kittson is still kind of struggling," Heath said. "Agriculture dominates the county, and it takes less and less people to run the agricultural industry. The more of an agricultural economy you are, the more losses you'll see."

Still, he said economic development efforts are continuing, even in counties with larger population loss. He noted the planned biodiesel plant in Hallock as an example.

"They're working at it," he said. "All the counties are. There are some projections, going out further, showing some leveling out, some stabilization, for the region, looking out at about 2030."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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