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Reversing the trend

By Staff | Jan 22, 2010

The U.S. Census Bureau will conduct its population count later this year, and although the numbers won’t be released until next year, Pierce County and Rugby’s population total will be below the last official census taken in 2000.

Rugby has experienced an estimated 13 percent population decline over the past 10 years, according to census estimates.

The 2000 census had the city’s population at 2,939, but the last estimate taken two years ago, and released last July, has that figure now at 2,574.

Pierce County’s population is also reportedly on a downward trend, and the last estimate was just over 4,000.

No question the steady drop is a concern to city and county leaders. Reversing that trend is a point of emphasis and is critical to future economic growth for the community and region, according to Brenda Foster, Rugby Area Job Development Authority executive director.

Of course many small cities across the state are facing decline. Outmigration and deaths outpacing births are main indicators in the change.

Dr. Rathge, director of the N.D. State Data Center at North Dakota State University, said population shifts historically have been a result of economic changes.

Rural communities, like Rugby, center around agriculture and agriculture-related businesses.

However, over the years there have been significant changes in agriculture, including the size and number of farms. Advances in equipment and crop development have enabled farms to increase in size and require fewer farmers to manage them. As a result, the number of young farmers has declined. The economics of farming have also made it increasingly challenging for young producers to start.

Young adults are pursuing careers out-side of agriculture and those careers are taking them out of small towns.

Rugby’s population demographic also sheds light on its declining numbers. A large percentage of residents are age 55 and older. As a result, there are fewer young residents, fewer young families and children.

Although they are no longer part of the work force, that senior citizen population segment remains an important asset to the community, Rathge points out.

Seniors have consistent income through social security and pensions, enabling them to buy goods and services. They also access medical services.

Like other age groups, seniors have specific needs and it’s important to recognize and provide them in order to keep seniors living in the community and hopefully attracting others to retire here.

One of those needs is providing quality health care services. Another is housing. Many senior citizens want to move into smaller dwellings that contain specific amenities. And while there are a fair number of housing units already in the community tailored to seniors, there is a need for more. Plans are in the works for a 14-unit complex to be constructed this year. That’s a good step, Rathge said.

While it’s important to retain the senior population, it’s just as important to retain young residents, who leave Rugby each year to attend college or find job opportunIties.

Rathge said forming a partnership between the community and those young adults who soon will be entering the work force full time and can help to reverse that trend of outmigration.

Perhaps businesses can offer training or internships to young residents with the end goal of a job or chance to buy into the business. The community can create incentives for those young residents to stay after high school, or to return after college.

Those incentives could include paying off tuition, helping with mortgage costs, providing daycare or other services they need.

“It’s important to plant that seed when they are young, but you need to accompany that with incentives,’ Rathge said.

And if the community is successful in one or two young adults coming back to live, eventually, that will lead to another young family calling Rugby home.

During the community’s strategic planning session earlier this month the issue of population growth was discussed.

Is it important to first bring in high-paying, primary sector jobs to the city which will spur population growth, or does the community first need to increase its population, and then the good jobs will come?

Rathge is well aware of that ‘chicken or the egg’ debate. There is no right or wrong approach, but what is imperative is for the community to

recognize its assets and build on them to counter that losing population trend.

What’s also important is for the community leaders to recognize that peoples’ needs vary.

For young, or single residents, they may be want more entertainment or recreation outlets. For young adults or families, they may want more daycare options or more retail businesses to cater to their needs. For seniors or retired-aged residents, they may need more diverse medical services or housing options.

Identifying those needs and working to offer them is the key.

While many small towns have lost population since the last census count, there is good news to report. For the first time in a quarter century, many counties west of the Missouri River saw their population increase, Rathge said.

That, of course, was a result of the increased oil exploration in the Bakken oil patch in the northwestern part of the state. Again, economics played a hand in reversing that trend.

Perhaps Rugby can take advantage of the expanding natural energy production taking place in the state. A large wind plant just went on line north of Rugby which has produced some employment. Job development officials have discussed the potential for energy-based businesses to set up shop in the region. Perhaps the city can offer incentives for them to do so.

While the goal is to reverse, or at least slow the population decline in the county, it’s critical that population remains stable in the region. Many local businesses and services, such as the hospital and clinic, rely on a larger customer base. So it’s important that towns like Towner, Rolette, Willow City, Maddock, Rolla, Bottineau, Harvey, Dunseith and Leeds are retaining population.

Population numbers are important when it comes to receiving state highway distribution aid and funding sources at the state and federal government level based on population.

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