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Chuck Haga, Published June 28 2012

Census says GF shrinks; city disputes numbers

GRAND FORKS – Newly released population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau suggest Grand Forks and East Grand Forks each lost population between July 1, 2010, and July 1, 2011, but local officials discount the estimates and say they aren’t a matter of great concern.

“The census has typically shown for the last several decades that in the years right after the actual census, they estimate decline in population,” said Earl Haugen, executive director of the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks Metro Planning Organization.

The census “is using data collected a year or two ago, and the question is how valid are those numbers,” Haugen said.

“The census believes they’re valid, but they’re probably the only ones,” he said.

Hal Gershman, president of the Grand Forks City Council, said he’s convinced the city has grown since the 2010 census. “It’s not just local business, but check the vacancy rates, the apartment and housing construction,” he said. “Just drive around, and you’ll see that this is a city that’s growing.”

Barry Wilfahrt, president of the Chamber of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, agreed. The census estimates “just don’t track with reality,” he said.

According to the new data, the population of Grand Forks on July 1 last year was 52,631, a decline of 207 from the official census count of April 1, 2010. That was despite the census having estimated a slight increase in the city’s population between April 1 and July 1, 2010.

The new census estimates, based on a formula using births, deaths and migration, have Grand Forks alone among the state’s top eight cities with a population decline between July 1, 2010, and July 1, 2011.

Fargo grew in that period by 1,800 people to 107,348, according to the estimates, while Bismarck gained 1,393 to 62,665 and Minot gained 1,597 to 42,485. West Fargo, Mandan, Dickinson and Williston also showed gains – Williston, in the heart of oil country, by 1,290 to 16,006.

In northeast North Dakota, the new estimates showed slight declines from 2010 in the populations of Grafton, Park River, Cavalier and Larimore, no change in Devils Lake’s population and slight upticks in Rugby, Mayville, Hillsboro, Rolla and other towns.

Grand Forks County showed a decline, according to the new estimates, falling from 66,861 in the April 1, 2010, count to 66,598 on July 1, 2011.

For East Grand Forks, the July 1, 2011, population estimate of 8,560 was a drop of 41.

As in Grand Forks, the census had estimated a slight growth in population in East Grand Forks from April 1 to July 1, 2010. Estimates for Polk County showed the same trend.

The shifting estimates reflect at least a 30-year Census Bureau trend, Haugen said.

“Right after the census, they start being very bearish about growth in Grand Forks,” he said. “During the 1980s, they were very bearish on our growth, but when the 1990 census came in there was a huge growth from their 1989 estimate to the actual count. The same thing occurred in the 1990s.”

In 1999, two years after the disastrous flood of 1997, the census estimate of Grand Forks’ population “was significantly lower than what the 2000 actual count was,” Haugen said. “And we saw the same trend in the 2000s. They started to estimate bearish (slight) growth or decline in 2001, 2002 and 2003, and there was a huge gap between their 2009 estimate and the 2010 actual count.

What should Grand Forks take from the latest census estimate?

“We should take it with a grain of salt,” Haugen said.

“We feel we’re growing, not declining as the Census estimate says,” he said. “But we also feel we aren’t growing as fast as some of the peer communities appear to be,” such as Fargo, Bismarck and Mandan.

Grand Forks Council member Dana Sande said Grand Forks and the county “have seen significant growth over the past 12 months, both in terms of commercial and residential development.”

An apartment vacancy rate of about 3 percent, a “booming” housing market and other factors “indicate an influx of people into Grand Forks,” he said, “and I believe a July 2012 estimate would indicate a significant increase in population.”

The new 2011 estimates suggest that nearby communities, such as Larimore, Crookston and Thompson, also are declining in population.

“The data seem to suggest our region in both states is not faring as well as the rest of the regions of our states are,” Haugen said. “And while we believe Grand Forks and East Grand Forks are growing, the data would suggest our immediate neighbors are not.”

The between-Census data are not used in federal funding formulas, Haugen said, so there is no direct negative financial consequence to a decline in population estimates.

But local communities do use population growth for bragging rights and to encourage economic growth. The recently announced Bakken Initiative, aimed at attracting to Grand Forks companies doing business in the western North Dakota oil fields, is an example of how the city is trying to boost growth, Haugen said.


Chuck Haga writes for the Grand Forks Herald