Poised for growth or steady decline? Renville, Redwood counties sit at the 'fulcrum' in between

REDWOOD FALLS -- Southwest Minnesota's steady out-migration of young people has been well-documented, but it's a trend that could be reversed in Redwood and Renville counties.

REDWOOD FALLS -- Southwest Minnesota's steady out-migration of young people has been well-documented, but it's a trend that could be reversed in Redwood and Renville counties.

Redwood and Renville counties are at the "fulcrum'' between the counties expecting to see continued population decline or growth, according to John Shepard, a planner with the Southwest Regional Development Commission and co-author of a study on the region's out-migration.

He joined Dr. Jack Geller, who has led the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter for the past 10 years, in describing the prospects for the two counties. They spoke Thursday in Redwood Falls to members of Tatanka Bluffs, a citizens' group working to improve the quality of life and economic opportunities in the two counties along the Minnesota River.

Counties to the south and west of Redwood and Renville counties are projected to see continued population de-clines, according to the Minnesota demographer's office. Many of these counties could experience population declines in the years ahead matching the 10 to 15 percent losses experienced in the 1980s.

Their populations will continue to age, and by 2035 people over age 65 will comprise more than one-third of the population in some counties. The number of new entrants to the work force -- ages 15 to 24 -- will continue to decline and make it all the more difficult for these counties to recover.


In contrast, counties to the north and east of Renville County are projected to see growth in the years ahead, according to Shepard.

He said Renville County could take advantage of the "spill over" from the growth occurring in Kandiyohi, Meeker and McLeod counties, its partners in the Mid-Minnesota Regional Development Commission.

"You are kind of where the trend breaks,'' said Shepard of the two counties' opportunity to avoid the declines projected to the south and west.

As things now stand, the state demographer's office projects a 4.3 percent population decline in Redwood County from 2005 to 2015, and a 0.70 percent increase in Renville County.

Any turnaround in rural areas will not be led from St. Paul, according to Geller. "It's going to be led by people who live in rural Minnesota,'' he said.

Geller said that while renewable energy offers the promise of increasing economic wealth in the region, he does not believe it will help repopulate the region or fill its schools with children. Ethanol, biodiesel and wind are all very capital-intensive for the jobs created. A $60 million investment for an ethanol plant creates only 35 full-time jobs, he said.

Agriculture as a whole has become very efficient "at squeezing every drop of labor out,'' said Geller. The expanding size of farms and the reduced need for labor means that counties relying heavily on agriculture will continue to see population declines.

He urged the counties to diversify their economies and look especially at ways to foster new small-business development. He also urged counties to address economic development as a regional issue.


Geller said the rural communities that are seeing growth are those building the infrastructure for a new, more diverse economy. It's more than having business-grade broadband service or efficient transportation systems. It's also a matter of providing affordable housing, quality schools, safe streets and recreation, arts and other amenities.

These communities work to make themselves what Shepard called "cool places'' to live. They consequently are able to attract young people and, importantly, young entrepreneurs.

State and federal policy changes are needed too, according to Geller. "We have to turn around the type of (government) investment made in rural places proportional to urban development,'' he said.

The greatest share of government investment in rural areas comes in the way of transfer payments to individuals, whether as Social Security, veterans' benefits, or farm program payments.

In contrast, the greater proportion of government investment in urban areas is made for community development, in the form of funding for transit, airports, water and sewer and other infrastructure, he said.

"You can't have a first-class economy based on a third-class infrastructure,'' he said.

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