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Census data, trends 'challenges us to be more creative'

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news Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Enterprise
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Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Hubbard County's population bubble, comprised of aging residents and kids leaving the nest permanently, is cause for concern, Census data suggests.

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That means as the Baby Boomers add to the senior population, and a sparsely populated generation ages behind them, who will take care of the county's old fogies?

"They will put a demand on the county and assisted living services," said Cliff Tweedale, Executive Director of Headwaters Regional Development Commission at a county board work session Wednesday.

As U.S. Census data trickles out and the population trends become clearer, Tweedale told the county board during a Power Point presentation, "You are blessed in many ways. A lot of counties envy" Hubbard County's 11 percent growth rate over the past decade.

Minnesota's growth rate was just under 8 percent in the last decade.

"The lakes and pines corridor has a fairly strong growth rate," Tweedale said, pointing to the county-by-county population growth throughout the state. And that's despite a decade where the economy took many hits.

But as more seasonal residents retire and move to the area permanently, they could strain county services.

"This is a scary chart," said Dave Hengel, Director of Community Stewardship & Development for HRDC, pointing to the "Hubbard County Population Pyramid" that isn't a pyramid at all.

It clearly shows the aging population bubble.

As Baby Boomers retire, there may not be enough potential employees to replace them in the workplace and locally, a unique situation exists.

"Employment in Hubbard County is not continuing to grow," Hengel said.

Kurt Hansen, administrator Heritage Living Center, said he's already starting to see trends of the economy "perking up," but that presents a new set of issues.

"There's real competition for employees" in health care fields, he said. With Baby Boomers retiring, businesses will need to make a concerted effort to recruit employees.

"It will start to show especially if we're less healthy as a nation," Hansen said,

And Tweedale sees a "growing disparity between the haves and have nots," meaning household incomes vary widely. There may be no traditional middle class.

The education/employment picture

Hubbard County residents tend to be less educated than the state and national averages.

"Talent is important in economic growth," Hengel said. "The lack of college degrees is significant" for potential employers, who "have an expectation of training beyond high school" and the possibility of continuing education.

Both men applauded Park Rapids' efforts to recruit an online college, MState, to the area for fall classes.

"You need to create a sustainable presence for MState," Tweedale suggested.

Employers want quality and innovation that can only come about through education, Tweedale said.

"Smart people have options," he said. Income rises with educational attainment, whereas unemployment rates negatively coincide with levels of education. High school dropouts struggle to maintain employment, Census data suggests.

But that can be a double-edged sword, commissioner Cal Johannsen suggested. Kids go to college because they're sold on the idea they can advance faster with a degree.

"Kids don't want to start at the bottom" and work their way up, he said.

Trends suggest a "significantly shrinking workforce in the teen years and a high rate of dropouts," Tweedale said.

"Are we teaching them the wrong things?" asked commissioner Dick Devine. "Should we teach them trades?"

Devine questioned how the county will keep "quality people" when "it's hard to keep our kids home here, especially the smart kids."

"I don't think it's bad that we send them away" to college," Tweedale said of the county's youth. "It's really bad if we don't have a way to attract them back."

The planners urged board members to view education as a community issue that could impede the retention and expansion of business.

"We're approaching a really serious problem," Devine said. He suggested forming a consortium of educators, businesses and city and county officials to stem the exodus of youth.

And the workforce looks considerably different than it did a decade ago, according to the data. There was a significant decline in manufacturing jobs that generally paid high wages and offered good benefits. The area saw growth in the public administration, health care, education and financial service sectors, but those jobs didn't offset the losses in manufacturing.

Location, location, location

The planners said Park Rapids seems to be holding its own as a regional hub of commerce. It hasn't seen the erosion in business that other towns such as Bagley have experienced, Tweedale said.

People are interested in locally grown foods, Hengel said. Keeping prices competitive will be important. Eighty-seven percent of retail dollars are spent close to home, Tweedale said.

"Regional centers are becoming increasingly important economic engines throughout Minnesota," HRDC's presentation indicated.

But the caveat is that as state and federal funding sources dry up, external help may not be available to spur that growth further.

"We're going to have that big bubble of people who need help but government can't afford to provide it," Devine said.

And although the lakes and pines corridor attracts people "who want to live here, I'm not sure it will be the case in the future," Hengel said.

"The lakes and pines may not be enough," he added. "Education and telecommunications" will be vitally important.

And that plays into regional efforts to get broadband service throughout the county. It is not available currently in many locations. Companies are even asking for redundancy, so if one system goes down, an alternate broadband network would be ready, the planners said.

Grell sees that lack of high speed Internet coverage as a crucial obstacle to recruiting businesses. The county simply must get wired, she said in her campaign for office last year.

The planners said the data gives county officials ample areas to concentrate on and priorities that will dictate the wisest use of funds.

"These interesting long-term trends challenge us to be more creative," Tweedale said.

Pick up a copy of Saturday's Park Rapids Enterprise to view the graphs that accompany this story.

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Sarah Smith
Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.
(218) 732-3364
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