Seniors contribute to large population boom in northern Minnesotaby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Bemidji, Minn. — Lee and Maxine Skunes, both 76, visit a physical therapy center in Bemidji almost every day.
In 2007, the couple moved from Bagley to Bemidji so they could be closer to the health care they need.
"I had triple bypass and she had fallen and cracked some vertebrae, so we needed a lot of health care," said Skunes, a retired rural mail carrier.
The latest U.S. Census shows that while many Minnesota counties lost population over the past decade, there were plenty of counties with big gains. That includes the corridor stretching from the Brainerd Lakes area into the north woods.
State demographers say seniors are contributing to the region's significant population growth.
Skunes and his wife also picked Bemidji for its housing. Over the past decade, dozens of senior-focused townhouses were built to accommodate a growing senior population. Seniors contributed to a nearly 13 percent population increase in Bemidji since 2000.
Lee Skunes said they wanted safe housing that could accommodate their future needs.
"We live in Vista North strictly because it was wheel chair accessible, and I mean it was a good senior living type of a facility," he said.
Further south, the town of Baxter saw a 37 percent increase in population since 2000. While that growth was mostly due to an economic boom prior to the recession, Mayor Darrel Olson said it's also because more retirees moved there, not just for health care, but because of the surrounding lakes and forests.
"If you would have told me 10 years ago that we would see all the town homes, for example, being built in the city of Baxter, I would not have, really, not have believed that," Olson said. "So actually that is a population that did kind of sneak up on us, so to speak."
Some projections show Baxter's population could double by 2030. While it and neighboring Brainerd have become an economic hub in the region, seniors will be a significant part of that growth.
Elsewhere in Minnesota, the numbers aren't as promising. Officials in 37 of the state's 87 counties saw declines over the past decade. That's up from 25 that saw population declines in the 1990s.
Nearly every county on the southern, western and northern Minnesota borders lost people. It's a decades-old trend, mostly because rural populations are aging. As young people move away to larger cities for jobs, it leaves fewer people behind to raise families.
That presents challenges for communities like International Falls, which has seen dwindling population since the 1960s.
City Administrator Rod Otterness said an older population has unique service needs.
"Even though we have fewer people, every year we have more ambulance runs... because they're aging and becoming medically more fragile," he said. "The number of ambulance runs go up, even as the total number of people go down."
Otterness said the big dilemma for shrinking cities like International Falls is that they have fewer taxpayers. Yet the city still needs to plow roads and maintain infrastructure for those who remain.
"We need to maintain those services," he said. "Otherwise, we become like a Detroit, which has clearly suffered gargantuan losses in their population."
The impact seniors have on population and demographics is beginning to intensify. Millions of baby boomers nationwide are hitting retirement age.
That will have huge implications on the economy and on where people decide to live in the future, state demographer Tom Gillaspy said.
"Right now there's a big growth in that 60- to 65-year-old population, and just the beginnings of a rapid growth in the 65 and older population," Gillaspy said. "But as they age, any of these affects could be greatly exaggerated."
The latest census shows a record 26 communities in the Twin Cities suburbs saw population declines over the past decade. That's twice as many as in the 1990s. State demographers say that, too, is probably due to aging populations.
- All Things Considered, 03/25/2011, 4:54 p.m.