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Progress report looks toward future

The Park Rapids Indicator Report, reflecting a range of demographic information and "what we can do about it," is available as of today (Wednesday) on an "easily navigable" Web site,

A year ago, Progress Park Rapids asked the question, "What do we have to do to make sure the best days are ahead?" explained Millisa Smith, development specialist with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission.

"We looked at Park Rapids through secondary statistical data from a variety of sources, and compared Park Rapids to other lake and pine communities," she told the audience at Thursday's League of Women Voters-sponsored forum.

The report, now ready for unveiling, measures key areas: people and talents, economics and prosperity, community wellness and safety and livability.

-"Tightening of the labor force will be felt in the community," the "people and talent" component of the study found.

A significant decrease in the younger age group (projected to be over 40 percent in 16- to 24-year- olds between 2005 and 2035) and a large increase in older age groups (Hubbard County ranks 62nd out of 87 counties in median age) will change the labor force availability and composition, the report states.

Data indicates a 109 percent increase in those 65-plus, Smith said. "But there's no strategy to capitalize on the elderly population," such as engaging seniors for mentoring programs.

"There won't be enough people to fill the positions," Smith said.

"We can do better with the talent we have," the study states.

About one-third of area high school students are not graduating on time. Of those graduating, about half enroll in college.

"Skilled workers will be the most highly sought after asset in the new economy due to labor force trends. Communities that can attract and retain talented workers will be successful in coming decades," the report states.

"What can we do?"

"Initiate a collaborative community effort to improve graduation rates and rates of post-secondary participation," she advised. But this must be a community goal, not merely a school goal.

Smith suggested strengthening the connection between the community and its alumni - "people with their roots here."

"Park Rapids will be successful at retaining (and attracting former) talented people to the extent it can develop deep connections between those people and the community," the report states.

The report advocates targeting improvements that make the area attractive to future workers with knowledge and skills.

"Skilled and talented people look for great places to live, work and play."

-"The Park Rapids community is relatively poor," the economics and prosperity study found. With a 7.5 percent poverty rate, Hubbard County's rate is one percent higher than the state average. Furthermore, half the county's population makes less than $35,000 per year.

The county's median household income of $35,321 is $20,000 less than the state average, she said.

"We need to capitalize on community assets," Smith advised, including completion of the Downtown Revitalization Project.

She advocated staying on par with communications advances, to make the community "business friendly," and continuing to offer entrepreneurship training.

-Community wellness and safety studies found "the physical health of this community could be much better."

"Bad habits" are contributing to high overweight and obesity rates, which lead to major health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. Studies show 63 percent of the county's population is overweight.

Park Rapids has a substantially higher number of students who drink and smoke.

The study found 18 percent of the high school seniors "smoke heavily" and 30 percent are binge drinking, compared with statewide percentages of 12 and 20 percent, respectively.

"These trends carry over to adulthood and are leading indicators of health issues in the future," the report states.

No figures or percentages on crime rates were included in the report, but Smith stated the city's rates are "substantially higher" than the county's or the state's.

"But the county's numbers do not include Park Rapids. "They're mutually exclusive," she said

In rural areas, people come into the city to commit crime, she explained. "These numbers could be expected."

She urged citizens not to be complacent, to remain conscious of the issue.

"Our crime rates should be a concern," the report states. "Given the seasonal influx of tourists, the large service area of the community and our socio-economic demographics, our crime rates are not unexpected."

The report advocates "enhancing the existing partnership for health," noting Park Rapids 2010 is doing "remarkable things, but the size of the community's health issues demand broad community engagement."

Possible projects: a community-wide weight loss challenge, an active- living initiative and an effort to make the city more "pedestrian friendly."

The study advocates making the work of the Hubbard Youth Drug and Alcohol Task Force a centerpiece issue. "Intervention at this level pays many long-term dividends."

The report also suggests providing alternative, positive activities to reduce sedentary lifestyles. Park improvements and increasing outdoor recreation programs, come summer, would enhance this.

-The Park Rapids community fosters the arts and has abundant outdoor recreational opportunities. The area at large is home to numerous lakes, snowmobile trails and state forests.

But with these "livability" assets come the need for stewardship and cultivation.

Suggestions include using the arts and cultural assets to carve a niche for Park Rapids, capitalizing on the area's numerous artists and theatrical talent to "attract more of the creative class."

The study proposes making Park Rapids a "green community," to preserve our natural environment, a major community asset."

Invasive species, an emerging threat, must be addressed. And implementing the city's park plan earned endorsement.

The suggestions from the study now must meet "community readiness," to foster long-term change.

"Our next steps will be to confirm and enlist community champions," Smith told her audience.

The Web-based study has more than 70 links for further information on the subjects.