Friday, March 18, 2011 By Aaron Brown
WDIO is among many reporting some of the raw data for northern Minnesota towns. Population drops of 2-9 percent are common in nearly all Iron Range towns. The grand exception is Grand Rapids, which according to WDIO jumped 40 percent from 2000 to 2010. I received a skeptical e-mail about this number but if that figure includes the rural areas around Grand Rapids then, yes, I could believe 40 percent. Itasca County as a whole showed modest growth, much of it related to an influx of retirees. Most Range towns that showed any growth were in Itasca County. With more than 1,000 lakes piled into an historic forest and a tight, active network of community organizations, Itasca is the only part of this region built to grow in the short run.
UPDATE: A commenter has pointed out that the annexation of Grand Rapids Township that was completed just before the Census is the leading reason for the size of the Grand Rapids population increase. The Duluth News Tribune has a story today that mentions this. There was probably growth over and above the annexation, but likely much closer to the 2-5 percent seen in neighboring communities. Still this greatly outpaces the decline seen on the eastern Mesabi.
For a personal example, in 2000 my wife and I lived in Hibbing. We've since moved to Itasca County, had three kids and enrolled them in Grand Rapids schools. I could say that I don't just watch trends, I make them happen. In truth, lots of people did this: several hundred, plus several hundred more retirees. More than 1,000 in total.
The westward shift of the Range population center has cultural significance because only some of the people who live in Itasca County self-identify as Iron Rangers. In the west, there are old political resentments about the Range. Freshman House 3B Rep. Carolyn McElfatrick (R-Deer River) is a shining example of someone who does not identify with Range history or culture and was, for the most part, elected by similar people. In Eastern Itasca, where I live, the population is divided. As Itasca grows while "the Range" shrinks internal conflicts within the region's political structure will ensue.
I've seen reports showing significant population shortages in Iron Range legislative districts. I am forming some theories about how redistricting will go for the Range, but don't have the tools I need to show that to you yet. Picture an island with eight cannibals ... it goes on from there. When I get a better look at the data I'll write more on this topic.
The Iron Range of the near future will be slightly smaller, slightly more conservative on average, much more politically polarized, and feature more generational friction than ever as a frustrated older majority dwarfs a frustrated young minority. The region's natural resources and enduring educational and recreational institutions will allow us occasional chances to prosper, chances that will become fewer and farther between if this dynamic continues.
The future can be changed, but the numbers don't lie.