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Kyle Potter, Published February 14 2014

Going with the flow: Cass County draw population from region, Twin Cities

MOORHEAD - In the last year, Clay County residents moved to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in Ross County, Ohio, by the dozens.

Nearly 200 left their bayside homes in Santa Clara County – home of California’s Silicon Valley – to settle in Grand Forks County.

And though some Wilkin County residents moved north to the bigger cities in the region, more than 100 headed west to Washington, making their homes across from Seattle on the Puget Sound.

Those head-scratching facts come from the U.S. Census Bureau, which released county-to-county migration estimates last week. Though a state census official warns to treat the estimates “as an indicator, not as gospel,” they paint a rough picture of where our new neighbors came from and where our old ones headed.

The county flow patterns are based on data that date back to when the state’s population and economic growth looked far different, said Kevin Iverson, manager of the North Dakota Census Office. The Census Bureau used 2007 to 2011 data to estimate how people move between counties in the last year. And large margins of error mean the 22 people Cass County is estimated to have lost to Washington, D.C., could have really been a net gain.

But still, Iverson said the county-to-county migration figures back up some anecdotal claims and theories about population movement in the Midwest.

Cass and Clay counties each pulled in hundreds of residents from nearby, more rural counties on both sides of the Red River, affirming the Fargo-Moorhead area’s status as a regional magnet. Both counties gained more residents than they lost.

Jim Gartin, president of the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp., said those net population gains weren’t a surprise. But he said they’re great news to help the area tackle what he feels is the largest problem for the region: “Where are we going to find the workforce to feed our growth?”

“This shows we’re doing a good job at that,” Gartin said.

After months of moving around for work, Jon Walters packed everything he could into his car in December for his move from Boulder, Colo., to Fargo. After less than two months living in Cass County, Walters, 25, said it’s clear to him he’s not alone in making the move to the Fargo-Moorhead area.

“People are drawn to it. Once they get here, they realize what it really is,” he said, adding that a friend from Ohio is also considering moving to the area.

Cass County is the clear winner between the two bordering counties, with a net population gain of more than 3,500 – from 344 counties in 43 states – compared to a net gain of 560 in Clay County, according to the Census data.

About 800 people moved to Cass County from Hennepin County, home of Minneapolis – more than double the number of those who made a Cass-to-Hennepin move. That makes Cass County the second-largest source of Hennepin County’s net population loss outside of Minnesota. Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to snowbird hotspot Phoenix, took No. 1.

The migration estimates may also bolster the border battle between Minnesota and North Dakota. Clay County lost a net total of about 460 residents to Cass County. According to an analysis of counties hugging the Red River, North Dakota counties gained almost 5,000 more residents from bordering Minnesota counties than it lost.

Gartin attributed the Clay-to-Cass exodus to stronger housing development in Fargo. He said he expects those numbers to taper off in the coming years, “now that Moorhead has started to get more developers.”

The counties in North Dakota’s oil country look like a melting pot, posting net population gains from across the country: hundreds from Texas, North Carolina, Alaska and more have flooded into Williams, McKenzie and Ward counties.

Those same counties suffered some of their largest population losses to Burleigh and Cass counties, which Iverson said may confirm anecdotal stories about older North Dakotans leaving the Oil Patch.

But Iverson stressed the migration trends are in flux, and will change drastically as the underlying data catch up with the huge population growth across the state.

“These numbers, when we get them next year, are definitely going to look different,” he said.

County breakdown

Cass County, N.D.

3,556 net gain

- Top gain from: Stearns County, Minn., 551

- Top loss to: Eau Claire County, Wis., -202

Clay County, Minn.

560 net gain

- Top gain from: Pennington County, Minn., 128

- Top loss to: Cass County, N.D., -463

Grand Forks County, N.D.

702 net gain

- Top gain from: Santa Clara County, Calif., 177

- Top loss to: Cass County, N.D., -270

Polk County, Minn.

-33 net loss

- Top gain from: Douglas County, Minn., 146

- Top loss to: Cass County, N.D., -119

Becker County, Minn.

-41 net loss

- Top gain from: Mecosta County, Mich., 138

- Top loss to: Cass County, N.D., -197

Richland County, N.D.

696 net gain

- Top gain from: Cass County, N.D., 131

- Top loss to: Bernalilo, N.M., -62

Wilkin County, Minn.

348 net loss

- Top gain from: Grand Forks County, N.D., 53

- Top loss to: Kitsap County, Wash., -115

SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau county-to-county migration estimates

Click on link for an interactive graphic on county-by-county migration.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502