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While Minnesota and Wisconsin populations grow, Twin Ports remains stagnant

The laker Philip R. Clarke glides through the Duluth ship canal as seen from the air in August 2015. (News Tribune file photo)

At a time when much of Minnesota is experiencing population growth, the Twin Ports area is fighting to hold its own.

Estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau this week indicate that the Duluth-Superior metropolitan statistical area (MSA) — including St. Louis, Douglas and Carlton counties — actually lost 172 people from 2016 to 2017. That stands in stark contrast to the state of Minnesota, which experienced positive net domestic migration for the first time in a decade, with about 8,000 more people moving to the state than residents moving away in 2017.

Since 2010, the population of the Twin Ports metro area has essentially remained flat, slipping by a negligible 0.4 percent.

Meanwhile, Minnesota's population grew by an estimated 5.5 percent over the same seven-year span, and Wisconsin's population increased by 1.9 percent.

The Northland's stagnating population could have serious implications, said Tony Barrett, an economics professor at the College of St. Scholastica.

"Economic growth comes from two things — either more workers or more productive workers. Up on the Iron Range, we've seen a massive increase in productivity, so there are fewer people working at the mines, but they're paid well and the mines are doing well," he said.

"But in general, for a region to grow economically, you need more people. It's very hard to address changes in productivity other than with long-term things, like education. So as long as our population is stagnating, that is going to make it hard to have substantial economic growth," Barrett said.

The lack of population growth paired with a low unemployment rate has led to a tight labor market, said Erik White, an analyst for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

"With the demographic trends of an aging workforce and a not-increasing population, we kind of have to make the most of what we have," he said.

Barrett said the Northland will need to create more quality jobs in order to change its storyline and begin growing again.

"Immigration, whether you're talking within a country or internationally, is overwhelmingly an economic phenomenon. People are moving for jobs. Either they're moving away from where they can't get a job or they're moving towards where they think they can get a better job," he said.

"That starts with business. There's really very little a city council can do to make Duluth a more attractive place for someone than an alternative city somewhere else. You need the jobs, and the jobs have to be generated by your local businesses," Barrett said.

But not all jobs are created equal, White noted.

"We have jobs, so that's a great aspect. The problem is that other regions of the state have job opportunities, too. We're not isolated," he said.

White noted that the Northland has competitive strengths and weaknesses.

"There are some attractive qualities to the region that probably do draw prospective employees, some of those quality-of-life factors that are often talked about. But at the same time, often a key indicator of the quality of a job is the wage that's offered. And we know that in the region, wages for the most part tend to be less than you would find in other areas, such as the Twin Cities metro and even some of these other MSAs, like Rochester and St. Cloud," he said.

The Northland's struggles to keep pace are nothing new, said Barrett.

"We always seem to lag the rest of the state. That seems to be the case, year after year," he said.

"We're the tortoise. Our economy regionally and in Duluth has grown steadily since the '81-'82 recession. We've had very steady growth. A couple national recessions didn't hit Duluth, but on the other hand, we never seem to get out of second gear," Barrett said.

The latest Census estimate provides a regional view, rather than a close-up of Duluth, noted Heather Rand, the city's director of business and economic development.

"Because we're impacted by the Range and the MSA includes the Range, we were dramatically impacted in terms of numbers of jobs when the mines all closed. While they've come back on line, that did definitely impact us. And, as often happens, even when they come back on line, there are sometimes fewer jobs because they're automating more," she said.

Barrett takes some encouragement from his own anecdotal observation that more young people who graduate from college in Duluth are choosing to take jobs in the area.

"There are more businesses hiring our students, and that gives me a sense of optimism, because students then get married and have children and you start generating your own economic growth," Barrett said.

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