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After a 15-year exodus, why are people suddenly moving to Minnesota?

ST. PAUL — Minnesota last year broke a 15-year losing streak when more people moved here from another state than moved out, according to Census Bureau estimates.

Experts aren't sure it's the start of a new trend, but the numbers offer hope for employers that the state's labor force could grow faster than expected.

"I sure hope that it's a turning point and not a one-time blip in the data," said Steve Hine, labor market information director for the state's Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Roughly 100,000 people move to Minnesota each year from another state. But each year for the last decade and a half, an average of 6,600 more people have left Minnesota for another state.

That loss has been more than offset by international migration, which has added 12,500 per year in that time. Still, the trend has curtailed the state's overall population growth, stoking fears of a looming economic slowdown as the workforce ages and people have fewer babies.

Hine said the state projects the number of available workers to grow by just 5,000 a year for the next decade.

If that's true, he said, "we're going to be in a prolonged period of pretty stagnant employment and economic growth here in Minnesota."

But the Census Bureau last month said Minnesota gained an estimated 7,941 residents through domestic migration for the year ending July 1.

Combined with 16,460 from international net migration and 27,379 from natural growth (births minus deaths), Minnesota's population last year grew by nearly 52,000 — roughly the size of Edina — to 5,576,606.

It's not yet clear how Minnesota did it because the Census has yet to release data on movement between individual states.

But last month's report shows Minnesota's neighbors continue to lose residents. North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin combined to lose over 11,000 residents from domestic net migration while South Dakota gained about 2,000.

State demographer Susan Brower thinks an exodus from the Chicago area is a significant part of the story. Illinois lost about 115,000 from domestic net migration last year. Only New York and California lost more.

The nation's biggest gainers were Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Washington and Arizona.

"It's hard to pinpoint any clear trend from any one year but it's great to see a positive number," Brower said.

One factor would figure to be Minnesota's low unemployment rate, which topped out at 4 percent last year. But the nation as a whole did just fine, less than a percentage point higher.

"What's driving young people to move one place or another isn't exclusively dependent on economic opportunities. There's something else going on," Brower said.

It's a good bet that many of Minnesota's newest residents have lived here before.

Jack DeWaard, a University of Minnesota sociologist who studies migration, said a number of people who leave at retirement for Sunbelt states return home before they die.

Likewise, Minnesota for years has lost many more young adults than it's picked up from other states. Perhaps they're finding a reason to return home.

DeWaard figures the high cost of living in places like Silicon Valley in California have priced out Minnesota exiles.

"In those terms, Minnesota has an advantage. Historically, we would have talked about where are the winters less extreme," he said. "Now we're talking more about affordability."

Hine wants to believe there's something to the ubiquitous state-by-state rankings touting Minnesota as a swell place to live.

"It would be nice to think that perhaps that quality-of-life factor is finally having some success in attracting young people to, if not the state, then at least the Twin Cities area," he said.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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