What is behind Duluth’s slow population growth?

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Last month, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson stood on the steps of town hall, flanked by other town officials, to highlight the new census results.

“You know, for decades we talked about [Duluth having] a stagnant population, and he felt that we are more dynamic and that we are growing, ”she said. “And it turns out we are.”

The 2020 census results, which were delayed until this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, revealed that Duluth had grown – but not by much. The city has added 432 people since 2010. Yet Larson called it a victory for Duluth.

“Because it means a new energy is coming. And that doesn’t even count the perimeter in which a lot of people want to live with a little more leeway than the density of a city. We are therefore delighted to be now at 86,697 residents. ”

This equates to a growth rate of about 0.5% since 2010, well below that of other regional centers around Minnesota. By comparison, Rochester grew 14%, St. Cloud 5% and Moorhead 17%.

There is evidence to suggest that there was a significant undercoverage of students in Duluth last year, possibly by around a thousand people. That’s because when the census was taken, at the start of the pandemic, university classes were all virtual.

But even if you add these numbers together, Duluth’s growth rate still lags behind that of other cities.

The population has barely budged in the past 20 years. Ten years ago, former mayor Don Ness launched a campaign he called 90 x 20, to increase the city’s population to 90,000 by 2020.

Duluth was in a much different situation when Ness took office, he recalls, just recovering from a severe economic downturn.

“It was important to lead the way and say, you know, we want to change our direction, we want to be a healthy community that holds its young people and seeks to grow over time,” Ness said.

But that growth has proven elusive, despite much optimism around Duluth, as evidenced by the growing number of tourists, the positive national press, and many anecdotal stories of people settling in Duluth for its natural amenities and its quality of life.

“It seems like a paradox because we have all this energy and excitement that is valid and genuine about Duluth,” said Duluth City Council vice president Arik Forsman. “And yet the population numbers have not matched this energy and enthusiasm for the city.”

Housing, geography, jobs

During interviews with several members of Duluth Town Government and community and economic development groups, a few key themes emerged to help explain the Town People’s Paradox. A big one is housing.

“It has been reported to us that, you know, jobs have been turned down because people couldn’t find a place to live that meets their expectations,” said Adam Fulton, deputy director of planning and development. economy of the city. development.

Duluth needs more housing across the board, especially affordable housing, Fulton said. The city added 1,630 new housing units between 2010 and 2020 and has 600 more under development. Yet a recent report revealed an urgent need for 3,600 apartments and houses.

New census data is helping to convey that housing is a big part of what holds back growth. This shows that in the neighborhoods of Duluth that added housing, the population of those areas increased.

“There is a growing consensus in housing research circles that the housing crisis is fundamentally a supply issue,” said Karl Schuettler, research director and senior consultant at Northspan, an economic and community development organization. based in Duluth.

“If we don’t add new homes, we don’t create space to add new people – and raise prices in the process,” he said.

But Duluth faces unique challenges when trying to add new housing. The city’s steep and rocky topography is “what makes our city beautiful,” Forsman said, “but it’s also what increases the level of difficulty of some of the issues we have to grapple with.”

Construction crews are building new homes along London Road in Duluth on Thursday.

Dan Kraker | MPR News

Duluth is also landlocked, surrounded by Lake Superior on one side and townships and rural towns on the other, with very little suburban-style housing in between.

“While other areas like Mankato or St. Cloud have surrounding farming communities that can destroy a farm field and build a subdivision pretty cheap and pretty quickly,” Noah Hobbs, loan manager at One Roof Community Housing told Duluth.

Duluth is in part a victim of his own success, Hobbs said, in creating a place people want to live. This is in stark contrast to the 1980s, when people left town in droves, prompting someone to put up an infamous billboard along Interstate 35 that read: “Is the last one leaving Duluth s ‘please turn off the light. ”

“And now people want to be here, live here and work here. And our building of new units just hasn’t kept up with that optimism,” Hobbs said.

Duluth’s housing stock is also aging. Almost half of all homes were built before 1950. It’s a problem Schuettler experienced firsthand when he returned to his hometown after graduating from college.

“Even though it’s a little more affordable than what you find in another market, it might not be exactly what people are looking for,” he said.

Employment is another key ingredient. People need jobs. But economic development experts say jobs are not necessarily the most important factor in a region’s growth.

“In the past, I think we would all have thought that the main indicator of whether or not you were going to be successful as a community at attracting families was whether you had a job,” said Forsman, who also works in economic development at Duluth. based at Minnesota Power.

“And I feel like with COVID, in particular this script has flipped,” said Forsman, who knows a lot of people who live in Duluth but work remotely.

The city has data showing growth in remote working even before the pandemic, Fulton said. He said the number of people who live in Duluth – but whose place of work was Hennepin County – rose from about 1,400 people in 2014 to 2,100 people five years later.

Forsman believes housing and child care are also key ingredients in attracting more people to Duluth, in addition to jobs.

Still, there are many couples who come to Duluth where one person has a job, but the other is struggling to find work.

This is what happened to Michele Statz and her husband when they moved to Duluth from the Chicago area in 2017. She was working at the University of Minnesota Duluth; he started to network. But it was a struggle to get in.

“He was going out for coffee with people. And one of their first questions would be, “Well, what high school did you graduate from?” “,” Statz recalled. “There was this idea of ​​not quite recognizing that people come from other communities. “

He eventually found a remote job with a Philadelphia company. And now they like it here, Statz said, “to the point that we don’t want to live anywhere else anymore.”

Which is great for Duluth, as the Statz, as a family with two young children, are a sought-after demographic.

Duluth has a lot of old people and a lot of young people, “but sort of that part is missing,” Schuettler said, “if you look at the age ranges of Duluth’s population historically, it’s about people of the generation. X who would now be parents with children. ”

As a result, there are many small households in Duluth, consisting of only one or two people. This helps explain that although the city has added hundreds of new housing units in recent years, its population has not grown much.

In fact, Duluth has never had as many houses and apartments as it does today. There are just fewer people living there.

“And so you end up with the household size declining quite substantially over the past few decades,” Schuettler said.

Forsman argues that Duluth needs to find a way to attract and retain more people like Statz and his family, people who want quality of life in Duluth and who can bring a job or two with them.

If the city continues to add housing by increasing density and creating jobs beyond the tourism sector, “we should legitimately have a chance to grow 100,000 in the future,” he said. “I don’t see why we wouldn’t do it if we are strategic about it.”

Better than Flint?

Compared to other older Rust Belt towns – like Erie, Pennsylvania, Toledo, Ohio or Flint, Michigan – Duluth is doing quite well. All of these towns have lost population.

“’We’re better than Flint’ isn’t exactly a winning slogan,” said Schuettler, “but at the same time, I think it’s worth acknowledging the scale of the economic challenge facing the city. “

Duluth is also growing at a time when the rest of northeastern Minnesota, an area with the state’s oldest population, is in decline.

“Population growth is really tough when you have an older population. It’s really tough when you don’t have particularly high birth rates,” said state demographer Susan Brower.

“These are all things that are in place right now not only in Duluth, but in a number of cities. And so, growth will not always follow when there is a good place to live. “

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