Fremont County shows largest population decline in the state

Only a few southwest Iowa counties saw an increase in population in 2015, but none moved the needle much, according to new estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

And, of eight southwest Iowa counties — Cass, Crawford, Fremont, Harrison, Mills, Montgomery, Page and Pottawattamie — only Pottawattamie County, anchored by Council Bluffs, has more residents than before the 2010 Census.

Halfway between federal censuses, Iowa continues to see a decline in its rural areas, and southwest Iowa is no different.

Although its population has increased by only half a percent, Pottawattamie County is one of just 28 Iowa counties, primarily in metro areas, that has grown since 2010. The remaining 71 of the state’s 99 counties have seen decreases in population in the past five years.

Tom Hanafan, a current Pottawattamie County supervisor and former Council Bluffs mayor, said southwest Iowa is no different than many areas of the state, which are growing older and struggling to keep existing residents or attract new or younger residents — or even keep jobs in certain rural areas.

“I think we have an uphill battle to deal with across the state of Iowa,” he said. “The shift of population from rural Iowa, with fewer people in the ag business, reflects across our state.

No Iowa county has seen a sharper decline than Fremont County, which has been battered by floods and a tornado since 2010. Even in 2015, the county lost a major employer as Eaton Corp., a manufacturing plant just west of Shenandoah, announced several hundred layoffs as it closed its doors.

But a declining population is nothing new in Fremont County, said Twila Larson, executive director of the Fremont County Economic Development Corp. She noted that the county has consistently lost population since peaking at more than 18,000 in 1900.

She cited Newton as a community worth emulating after hard times struck.

The city, located east of Des Moines, was the headquarters for Maytag. When the company was sold and a massive employer moved away, the absence left a gaping hole in the community.

Though still hurting from Maytag’s absence, city leaders charted a new course – one that included new manufacturing and other jobs plus quality-of-life amenities, including the Iowa Speedway.

“We’re not in a decline as much as we are in a change,” she said. “ ... We have a bright future. But we have to go to +the bottom before we can get back to the top.”

Of those 28 counties that gained population, three of the state’s largest led the way. Dallas County, which encompasses many of Des Moines’ western suburbs, grew by 21.2 percent. Polk County (Des Moines) and Johnson County (Iowa City) increased by 8.6 and 10.2 percent, respectively.

Eighteen of the counties that grew were in metro areas, while three more were the lone county in a micropolitan area, which has a principal city of between 10,000 and 50,000 residents. The remainder of the state only saw seven counties grow, with only one – Sioux County, in northwest Iowa – seeing a significant rise.

With its continued strong growth, the Council Bluffs-Omaha metro area also leapfrogged Albuquerque, New Mexico, to become the nation’s 59th-largest metro with an estimated population of 915,132. This increase came despite its three Iowa counties – Harrison, Mills and Pottawattamie – which combined to lose 362 residents over the past five years.

All five Nebraska counties – Cass, Douglas, Sarpy, Saunders and Washington – in the metro experienced at least minimal growth between 2010 and 2015. Its two most populous counties, Douglas (6.4 percent) and Sarpy (10.6 percent), accounted for the lion’s share of the increase.

“The growth has been relatively strong here, and that’s a good sign going forward,” said David Drozd, who compiled and analyzed the data for the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research.

Much of the metro area’s strong growth occurred in the counties on the Nebraska side of the Missouri River. Hanafan believes an increased focus on planning among the eight counties in the metro as part of the Heartland 2050 campaign and other more regional efforts.

In all, the metro area has added about 50,000 people in the first half of the decade. Its 1.1 percent annual increase rate during that time ranks as the 41st-fastest growth among the nation’s 100 largest metros – and much of that can be attributed to growth in Omaha’s central corridors.

And Council Bluffs is well-positioned to benefit from that growth, Hanafan said, citing projects such as the Sawyer Building on the 100 block or ongoing development in the Playland Park area, which he called the city’s “key to growth” just across the Missouri River from downtown Omaha.

Larson believes that growth will eventually be a catalyst in Fremont County.

With the recent opening of the new U.S. Highway 34 bridge that connects Glenwood to Bellevue, Nebraska, in Sarpy County, she said, Fremont County will increasingly be a player in the metro area. She likened it to being an “extension of the bedroom community.”

Despite being less than an hour from Council Bluffs and Omaha, she highlighted the area’s natural elements – the Loess Hills, Waubonsie State Park and the Missouri River – as being close but not too close to urban environment for those who prefer small towns.

That, she said, should allow for Fremont County to appeal to both employers and future residents who want the best of both worlds.

“The future is bright,” Larson said. “We’re not out of the woods yet, but it does look a little brighter.”

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