Wadena County is growing marginally—in fact 222 residents over the decade. And it’s slow growth that the county has kept pace with for 50 years.

The 2020 Census records who’s living in what areas in the United States on April 1, 2020. People could respond online, by mail or over the phone. The pandemic had a challenging impact on collecting the information and likely includes an undercount as the Census Bureau releases yearly. The data also includes new privacy measures, which are to protect people’s identity and include inaccuracies at specific geographic levels.

“It’s nice that we’ve had growth. Other communities have declined,” said Katie Heppner, Economic Alliance executive director. “I feel unfortunately there’s a feeling, especially in rural communities, ‘Oh, we’re dying’ or ‘Oh, no one’s here’ or things are declining. That’s not the truth.”

The 1.6% population growth still shows growth, and that’s a “good sign,” as Heppner said, including to businesses looking to move or expand to the area and housing developers. State demographer Susan Brower said Wadena County is in a “growth region” of North Central Minnesota, though, with 78% of the state’s growth happening in the metro areas. The county has also lost larger families, such as farmers connected with the dairy industry, and “it’s struggled to replace the population,” Wadena County Commissioner Bill Stearns said.

“The concerning part of a slow or no population growth is that it’s indicative of … either no economic growth or a slow economic growth and that results in higher taxes because the tax base isn’t increasing while inflation is increasing the things that taxes have to pay for,” Stearns said.

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The slow growth can show limited economic activity, home construction and new businesses. And where you live in the county impacts these changes too. For example, Wadena’s downtown has just about every business spot filled and a few housing projects have come in over the years.

“As far as the way the town is going, I think we’re going the right way,” said city of Wadena Mayor George Deiss. “Some of the unique shops on Main Street have really sparked interest in people to come to Wadena to check them out, whether it would be the brewery or the distillery or the Taste of Colombia and even the Divas and the Make Me Wine, they’re unique shops that we haven’t seen in Wadena before.”

Leaders say people are moving to Wadena County, including people during the pandemic who have found the rural, slower pace pairs well with working from home. While a Census after the 2010 tornado would have shown less people in Wadena, Deiss said the apartment additions, people moving to town and businesses needing people to work showed there would be a population increase.

“The city of Wadena is a great economic hub of the county, it’s where a lot of people grocery shop, it’s where a lot of people go to school, work, no matter where you live in the county, a lot of people go to Wadena. If you’re in one of the smaller communities like Sebeka, Verndale or one of the townships, it’s not that boom. There hasn’t been as much growth,” Heppner said. “If you’re not in the city of Wadena, you might be left feeling underserved.”

The city of Wadena saw an increase of 237 residents. The city of Verndale saw a decrease of 91 residents and Aldrich 13; Menahga saw an increase of 34 residents, Sebeka 30 and Nimrod 15.

“I’m happy with the increase,” Deiss said. “It would have been really nice to know comparing apples to apples because the 2010 Census would have a lot of college kids counted in there.”

While housing is difficult to find, Deiss sees new homes, lots available and jobs open as space for Wadena to grow. “Have we met our apex? I don’t think so. I think we’re going to continue to grow,” Deiss said. He added Wadena is a good location for people commuting to jobs in towns along Hwy 10, 71 and 29.

A Community Partners Research housing study with the county and Economic Alliance showed the need for more homes and rental units throughout the county. Heppner said having housing built is the “trickier part.”

“I’d like to see the population grow because that would be an indication of economic growth because there’d be the need for new homes … and more housing,” Stearns said. “It would also indicate more people at work, more jobs.”

The population itself reflects who already lives in the county. The median age in Wadena County is 41.5 years old. The Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey estimates also report the median age in Minnesota as 38.4 years old. Wadena County has 6.9% of the population under 5 years old, 25.3% under 18, 74.7% for 18 and over and 21% for 65 and over.

“It’s just harder to grow when you have an aging population,” Brower said of the county and statewide trend. “You just have populations that don’t grow as fast, and that’s not a reflection of how wonderful the county is or isn’t, it is truly just a reflection of the demographics of the people who already live there.”

Brower said the racial composition of the county follows the statewide trend of more diverse communities. The small decline in the white population and the small increase in the people of color population is due to aging as more people are in the higher mortality rates, according to Brower. The county saw a decrease of 218 residents in the white only population and an increase of:

  • 9 residents for Black or African American only

  • 9 residents for Native American only

  • 18 residents for Asian only

  • 9 residents Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander only

  • 18 residents for some other single race

  • 280 residents for two or more races

Immigration also impacts where counties are growing the population ages, as Brower said.

“For those counties that have not seen as much immigration they’re just not going to have the population growth because our birth rates have been really very low since the Great Recession, they dropped even lower during COVID, and so we’re just not growing from births as much as we used to,” Brower said. “Immigration—whether it’s from outside your county borders within Minnesota, whether it’s outside of Minnesota within the US or whether it’s international immigration—takes on a bigger role than it would have had those birth rates been chugging along as they were a decade ago.”

Economic growth relies on population, as Heppner and Stearns said, including showing that there are employees and customers that will support the business or buy the home. But empty spaces for businesses in Wadena are hard to come by. Deiss said the Wadena business park has a few lots and the city has worked on being business friendly.

Deiss said employers growth, like Homecrest, Kern Electronics, Russ Davis Wholesale, Mason Brothers, Tri-County Health Care, Wadena-Deer Creek Schools and the county, are a good mark too.

“The jobs are here,” Deiss said. “It’s not for lack of jobs that people aren’t coming to Wadena.”

The Census Bureau will report additional quality of life indicators in future data releases. These indicators highlight household income, poverty, health care coverage, employer establishments and more.

“I think it would be important for leaders across all Wadena County if those indicators aren’t where you want your community to be,” Heppner said, “it’s time for some serious planning and engagement.”