Census shows decline in most Range towns, boom in Itasca County

The Census released its 2010 population data for Minnesota Wednesday. Population and demographic trends that were forming in recent years were confirmed. Last year I wrote a piece about how the demographics of the Iron Range region of northern Minnesota were changing. The changes were not just in population. In actuality, northern Minnesota population isn’t declining by all that much. The difference is in the kinds of households and families living in the area. More retirees, fewer young families. Taken together, political, cultural and economic trends can be discerned.

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.


  1. Aaron–Does the city’s increase in population reflect the fact that they annexed Grand Rapids township? I don’t know a lot about when that was done or how many people that included, but it might be reflected in the jump if the 40% increase is just the city. I haven’t looked at the data, so don’t know.

  2. Oooo. Thanks, Jaci. I hadn’t thought of that. I knew that the 40% couldn’t have come from GR proper, that it would have come from the outskirts — but this would be a very simple explanation for the size of the Rapids jump.

    In general, the reality remains the same. Gentle growth in the townships; gentle decline in the cities … except a few, like G. Rapids.

  3. I would like to see what size Grand Rapids would be if it were expanded out to the geographic size of Hibbing, (which is obviously huge geographically). It has always been strange to a demography geek such as myself that Hibbing could even possibly sport a larger population than Grand Rapids.

    As for the growth in Itasca County I really wonder where all these people moving into the area work. It seems to me that there are less available jobs in the Grand Rapids area than say in Hibbing or Virginia. The unemployment statistics seem to support this also. So how is this region booming in population growth whilst economically floundering? Perhaps the population growth is due to the independently wealthy moving from far away, or retirees?

    My mom lives in Grand Rapids and has been attempting to buy a home for the past two years. So I know from her struggles that housing market in Grand Rapids (proper), as well as Coleraine/Bovey is definitely valued much higher than any of the more Eastern parts of the Range. I would say that a comparable house in Hibbing is about 1/2 the price of the same home in Grand Rapids, and I do not feel that I am exaggerating that at all.

    I look forward to your views on the above!

  4. Heavy questions. I think I have answers but I may provide them in the form of a post. Give me a day or two. Thanks for asking!

  5. Cool, I look forward to it!

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