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N.D. population forecast looks 'gray'

North Dakota's demographic forecast predicts that three counties -- Cass, Burleigh and Morton -- will be islands of growth in an otherwise stagnant or declining state.

North Dakota's demographic forecast predicts that three counties -- Cass, Burleigh and Morton -- will be islands of growth in an otherwise stagnant or declining state.

The population projections also foresee a North Dakota that is markedly older within two decades. Up to 23 percent of the state's residents will be 65 or older by 2020. That compares to an elderly population of 12 percent in 1980.

Most alarming, perhaps, is the prediction that those aged 85 and older will increase almost 65 percent over their numbers in 2000. State demographers expect the segment of people 75 or older to increase dramatically.

"That population will literally double in about 15 years," said Richard Rathge, director of the North Dakota State Data Center, which issued the projections. "It's huge."

The state's challenge in caring for its seniors will be most acute for the very elderly. By 2020, more than one of every 26 residents would be 85 or older, an age group that is heavily dependent on health care and assisted-living services.


On a brighter note, Rathge projects that the state's population will dip until 2005 -- to 640,200 from 642,200 in 2000 -- then gradually rebound to 651,291 in 2020. The state's population, which fell steeply during the 1980s, stabilized and grew 0.5 percent during the 1990s.

But many rural areas of the state likely will continue their long decline, with 47 of 53 counties projected to keep losing people. Often, however, the losses will be modest, suggesting the comparative stability of the 1990s will continue in many areas.

The biggest growth centers will continue to be Cass County, where the population is expected to mushroom 23 percent; Burleigh County, where the population will increase almost 8 percent in 20 years; and adjacent Morton County, expected to increase 17 percent.

"That's what's holding up North Dakota," Rathge said.

Grand Forks County is forecast to see modest growth of 3 percent in the next two decades, which will contribute to population stability, he said.

Linda Butts, director of the state's Growing North Dakota economic development program, said the projections should spark support for growth initiatives.

"This once again reinforces the importance of trying to create career opportunities for all the citizens of North Dakota," Butts said. "It also points to the importance of the cooperative work" the state is embarking on in a recently unveiled strategic plan for economic development.

Last year, the North Dakota Legislature appropriated $1 million for a marketing campaign to increase the state's profile among the nation's business community.


The predictions should not be cause for despair, Butts said.

"It's very important that we as a state begin to believe that we can and will succeed as a state and we have attributes that the business community desires," she said, citing the state's well-educated and dedicated work force as well as its low tax-and-regulation business climate.

Encouragingly, Butts said, census figures indicate that the 20- to 34-year-old age group in North Dakota comprises 19.9 percent of the population, compared to a national average of 20.9 percent.

"So we should take that and try to build on that," she said.

However, Rathge predicts that the 25- to 29-year-old age group will continue to shrink. He predicts that segment will drop almost 25 percent from 1990 to 2005.

"That's where the huge hit is," Rathge said. "Those are the folks taking off."

Don Canton, a spokesman and policy adviser for North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, said the actions of government and business leaders might be able to create a brighter future than that portrayed in the population forecast, which is built on past trends.

"These are projections and we have to keep them in that perspective," he said. "I think that they assume there's nothing in the works to counter them. We are doing an awful lot in this state that we've never done before. I think it's important to look at these figures in that context."


Butts and Canton cited, among other purported "firsts," the $1 million earmarked to market the state's image to businesses as well as the creation one year ago of the state Department of Commerce, which combines economic development functions and streamlines procedures for businesses.

They also cited the partnership forged between economic development efforts and the state's university system in the higher education roundtable; and a statewide distance-learning program to provide nursing training to enable people to launch a second career without leaving their communities.

"It's things like that that can't be factored in to those projections," Canton said.

Actually, Rathge said that "hidden in the numbers" was his belief that the hollowing out of the state's population, driven by a mass exodus of youths, will moderate in the years ahead.

"This can't continue and in fact I don't think it's going to happen," Rathge said. However, he also said that the projections underscore the need for the state's political and business leaders to seriously address the loss of youth.

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the incentives proposed in Measure 3 on the Nov. 5 ballot, the so-called youth initiative, it has focused attention on an urgent issue, Rathge said.

"At least we're starting the debate, and I think that's positive."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

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