Census data indicates population decline in many small towns in northwestern Minnesota – Grand Forks Herald
ERSKINE, Minn. – Marc Plante remembers when Erskine had three grocery stores, a motel and two cafes.
Now mayor of the northwestern Minnesota community, Plante has lived in Erskine for most of his life. He says people older than him tell stories about the town’s bowling and cinema. But in recent years, it has seen more and more businesses close in the town as Erskine’s population dwindles.
Erskine’s population has been declining since the 1960s, and this year’s census told the same story – the 2020 census reported that since 2010 the population has fallen from 503 to 403, a decrease of 19, 9%.
Erskine is not unique. While major cities in northwest Minnesota — East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, for example — have continued to grow, many smaller towns lost population between 2010 and 2020, according to US Census Bureau data.
In East Grand Forks, the population grew by 575 over the past decade to 9,176, a gain of 6.7%. Thief River Falls rose 176 to 8,743, a gain of 2.1%. Crookston decreased by 409 residents, to 7,482, a drop of 5.2%.
Meanwhile, a number of small Minnesota towns in the region have seen notable population declines over the past decade, including Baudette (-12.7%), Clearbrook (-10.4%), Argyle ( -14.9%), Stephen (-10%) and Oslo (-27.6%), according to the Census Bureau.
However, Susan Brower, a Minnesota state demographer, said these population declines shouldn’t be alarming. As smaller towns lose population, Brower sees relative stability in the region.
“When I hear people talking about it, I feel like they feel like their cities or their counties are completely emptying out,” Brower said. “It’s a lot less than just a one-way bus ticket to a big city.”
Plante understands why Erskine’s population changed between 2010 and 2020.
“We have a lot of older people and we’ve lost some of that population,” Plante said. “So you don’t replace him with younger people because a lot of young people are leaving for job opportunities.”
However, he says the housing market in the city is good and he hopes that by 2030 the city will have a population closer to what it was in 2010.
Brett Kuznia, town clerk and former mayor of Stephen, was not surprised to learn that his community’s population had shrunk. The town’s population has been declining since the 1970s, but he noted that he is seeing a resurgence of young families coming to the area.
“I think people are realizing that living in a small town is a great thing to do to raise their family,” Kuznia said.
Brower said Kuznia’s sightings reflect a common migration pattern in rural areas. Often, people in their late teens and early twenties leave small towns for reasons such as school or job opportunities, while people in their thirties sometimes return to small towns.
“People are moving back to some of these more rural areas, once they’re a bit older and have families of their own and are looking to return to their families and communities. But this return migration is usually not large enough to counter the initial exodus of young people,” Brower said.
At the same time that people in their twenties are leaving cities and people in their thirties are moving into cities, rural areas are facing another demographic challenge: the aging of the population. Brower says the pattern of more young people leaving than returning leaves smaller towns with more older residents.
“It’s really hard for a population to grow because there are so many people who are in their old age,” Brower said. “They don’t have babies themselves and they’re more likely to be in the high-mortality age group.”
In Oslo, environmental factors accelerated the city’s population loss. From 2010 to 2020, the population fell from 330 to 239, down 91 people and 27.6%. In 2013, Oslo was fitted with a new system of levees to protect the city from flooding from the Red River, but 24 houses along the bank were torn down to make way for the levees.
“It’s had a huge impact on the city, not just in terms of people, but also the tax base and everything. It was a bad deal, but with the flooding they’ve had to deal with for all these years, they didn’t really have a choice,” Mayor Erika Martens said.
Martens says the city doesn’t have the money to offer tax breaks or otherwise entice people to move into town.
“We just try to market ourselves as a nice, clean city that’s close to a lot of things and really depends on word of mouth,” Martens said.
While some saw the census tally reflected in their cities, others were surprised to learn what the census was reporting.
Allen Burtilrud, mayor of Red Lake Falls, said he and his city administrator discussed the 2020 census results and felt there was an error somewhere. The census reported a 6.2% decrease in the city’s population since 2010.
“The reason I say this is that our school population has actually increased over the past two years, and we have a number of new homes and a number of new twin homes in the area,” Burtilrud said. “It just surprised us that we crashed like that.”
Brower said people were right to be skeptical of the census numbers. No one knows exactly how COVID-19 has affected the 10-year count, and new strategies employed by the US Census Bureau to protect privacy may skew the numbers.
This year, the Census Bureau used a process called “differential privacy” to help protect the identities of census participants. The process blurs data at lower geographic levels, such as households and blocks, to make it harder to identify people from reported numbers. Using differential privacy, the Census Bureau may report that one household lives in an area where there are no houses, while another block may have more households than houses. The numbers are reversed at low levels, but at the county level and above the numbers appear accurately.
Brower says this new privacy method could explain some of the inconsistencies and surprising results mayors might see.
While most small towns in northwest Minnesota have experienced population declines, a handful in the region have gained in population. Badger was among the fastest growing cities in this census. In 2010 Badger had a population of 375, but the 2020 census reported a population of 429, an increase of 14.4% over the decade. The town is located 12 miles from Roseau, which has also grown in population.
James Rinde, Mayor of Badger, says that in his 15 years as mayor, the town’s growth has been noticeable.
“When I came back here, there were a lot of ‘for sale’ signs and a lot of empty houses,” Rinde said. “A few years later, there is nothing at the moment in Badger. I think we probably have a house or two for sale.
Rinde attributes much of the town’s growth to the region’s industry. Neighboring companies Polaris, Marvin Windows, Central Boiler and Digi-Key employ many people in Badger and surrounding towns. Agriculture is also important.
Rinde also believes the area’s outdoor recreation opportunities — like camping, hunting and fishing — draw people in.
“Badger is known as the mallard capital of the world, you know,” Rinde said. “And we’re very lucky to have Lake of the Woods not so far from here.”
Dan Fabian, Mayor of Roseau, echoed Rinde’s sentiments about what draws new people to the area. Roseau has also grown over the past decade, with the population increasing from 2,633 to 2,744, an increase of 4.2%.
In the region, jobs are plentiful and salaries are good, says Fabian.
“You know, when people were talking about $15 an hour minimum wage a few years ago, we went over $15 minimum wage at most of our major employers here two, three, four years before we even ‘They don’t start talking about a $15 salary,’ says Fabien.
Fabian says he sees a lot of young people leaving the community to go to school and coming back to work after graduation.
“We have doctors and nurses who have gone out and done their education and training and come back to town. We have several teachers who came back here after university,” Fabian said.
Warroad, which is also in Roseau County, also saw population growth in the 2020 census – up 2.8% to 1,830.