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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Populations continue to stall in rural counties, the Census shows, and Eastern Washington may be a prime example

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 22, 2021

In 2019, the tiny town of Starbuck, Washington, updated its comprehensive plan.

One section of the plan examined the makeup of the town’s population. Of the 129 residents in the 2010 census, the largest single group was those between 65 and 69 years old.

The two age groups tied for second?

Those ages 55 to 59, and those 60 to 64.

“This tells us that the majority of the existing population is at retirement age,” the plan said.

Aging towns are, eventually, shrinking towns. That’s one of the common characteristics of small towns and rural counties reflected in the latest census figures, which reinforce the long-term trend of slow growth, stagnation or even loss of population in rural counties.

The 2020 census counts released earlier this month show a deepening of this trend – nearly every metro area in the nation grew, while more than half of all counties did not. And people older than 65 make up a larger proportion of the population in rural areas, at 18%, than urban ones, at 14%, according to census figures.

There are exceptions, but the pattern is obvious.

Washington’s population grew by 14.7% in the past decade, an increase of nearly 1 million people, with the largest increases in King, Pierce, Thurston and Spokane counties. In Idaho, similarly, a 17.3% growth over the decade was led by Ada, Canyon and Kootenai counties.

In both states, many rural counties grew much more slowly. In some cases, they shrank. Columbia County, the home of Starbuck and Dayton, is one of those places that got smaller in the latest census, with a drop of 3.1%

Since the 1980 census, the county’s population has hovered just above 4,000 people. In the new data, it dipped below that threshold for the first time in its history – dropping 126 people since 2010. In that time, Starbuck lost an estimated three residents.

In the county seat of Dayton, though residents say there have been improvements in job opportunities and the housing market is extremely tight, it’s a similar tale: A population that has declined at a rate of about 1.5% annually in recent years, challenges for employment and economic opportunity, and a general difficulty in keeping young people around and attracting new ones.

“We’ve had virtually nothing that is going to draw families here in Columbia County,” said Charlotte Baker, the publisher of the Dayton Chronicle and the East Washingtonian newspapers.

Not every rural county has the same story, and not every small town is struggling in the same way. But all of the rural counties in Eastern Washington and North Idaho grew less than the cities and towns.

The population in Ferry County, hit hard by losses in mining and logging employment, dropped by 4.9% between 2010 and 2020, according to the census. Other rural counties in the region grew little, including Garfield (0.9%), Okanogan (2.4%), and Lincoln (2.9%).

The trend is true all over the nation, and it has implications for everything from politics to economics. A national analysis of census data by the Pew Center’s Stateline project shows that rural areas lost 226,000 residents between 2010 and 2020, a drop of half a percentage point, while cities and suburbs added 21 million people, an increase of 8%.

“Only Hawaii, where retirees and remote workers are moving to rural islands, and Montana, which is drawing remote workers from pricey Washington state, saw more rural than urban growth,” the Stateline analysis said.

Job market changes

These challenges have been part of the rural landscape for decades – even here in pricey Washington state – and they have been apparent in the history of Columbia County.

The oldest surviving railroad station in the state, built in 1881, is in Dayton, and its stately, attractive courthouse, which was restored as part of a revitalization project in the 1980s and 1990s, is the oldest continuously operated courthouse in Washington.

The town and the county have faced economic and cultural challenges for decades, often related to the simple presence – or absence – of jobs. For many years, the Green Giant cannery, later bought by Pillsbury and then Seneca, employed people working in canning peas and asparagus, and stood at the center of an agricultural economy that provided lots of local jobs and brought in seasonal workers each summer.

Fluctuations in employment there have often had a huge effect on the county at large, and in 2005, the asparagus cannery was closed, as part of a trend of asparagus production moving to Peru. A lot of jobs went with it.

The county population, which peaked in 1900 at 7,128, has dropped decade by decade, though since 1990 it has held fairly steady.

The economic challenges of trying to keep a small town afloat are nothing new. Jennie Dickinson grew up in Dayton, and she remembers when she was a teenager in the 1980s, there was a community movement to try and stifle the population drain occurring then.

“Our Main Street was just a disaster and our unemployment rate was over 20%,” Dickinson said. “In 1983, the town had a big meeting and decided they weren’t going to just dry up and blow away.”

The citizens of Dayton adopted a strategy of historic renovation and hosting destination events to try and jump-start the economy. The Downtown Dayton Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999.

Dickinson is the executive director of the Port of Columbia, and a former head of the local chamber of commerce. She said she was surprised to hear the census figures, because there are several things happening in the county that show marked improvement from past years.

There are new job opportunities in the county in recent years, such as through the opening of Columbia Pulp, the first operation in the country that uses wheat straw to make paper pulp, and significant additions to the tax base through the growth of wind farms. She said the labor force has grown from around 1,400 in recent years to over 1,700, and the unemployment rate of 4.6 is as low as she’s seen it.

“Right now, we have 82 people unemployed,” she said. “That’s the lowest number I’ve ever seen in my career.”

Questioning the numbers

Dayton is also facing a housing shortage, as so many communities are.

“We are experiencing a housing shortage unlike any we’ve ever had,” Dickinson said. “You can’t find a rental, and if a house is for sale, it’s gone instantly.”

Dickinson is skeptical about the accuracy of the census figures.

It doesn’t feel to her as if the county is shrinking at all – and particularly not Dayton.

Baker, the newspaper publisher, agrees. She notes that civic officials in Columbia and neighboring Garfield counties were concerned about low return rates for census forms last year, and made a push late in the year to get more people to send in their forms.

The figures are important in many ways – setting the baseline for everything from representation in Congress to the distribution of billions of dollars in federal funding – and people in local government were afraid the low returns would have a negative effect on local governments.

In compiling the population counts, the census relies first on self-response rates – the voluntary return of census forms. It’s true that those rates are lower in many rural counties than the overall average; in Columbia County, for example, the self-return rate was 59% , compared to 72% for Washington overall.

Census figures indicate, however, that follow-up efforts to gather census returns for all of Eastern Washington, including going door to door, reached 99.9% completion, though it does not include specific breakdowns by county.

Baker also pointed to the housing shortage as an indicator that argued against a loss in population. Still, she acknowledged that it’s been hard for many local businesses to stay open, particularly during the pandemic, and noted that Dayton has lost some of the things that might be appealing to attract and keep young families. The city closed its swimming pool a few years back, for example, rather than spend the money to fix it.

“Economic development in Columbia County – we’re having a struggle,” she said.

Ferry County posted the largest population drop in Eastern Washington following years of losses in mining and logging jobs. Between 2010 and 2020, the population count dropped by 373 people, or almost 5%.

Elbert Koontz, the mayor of Republic, said it’s true that the county was struggling over the past decade.

“We lost a lot of revenue and we don’t have a lot of revenue,” he said.

But he said that in the time since the count for the 2020 census was concluded, he’s seen a change. Between the pandemic and some of the high-profile problems facing cities, more people are looking to move to a smaller place in a beautiful setting, and Republic is seeing some of that influx.

“People are moving in from California and Florida,” he said. “All the property that’s for sale is being scooped up, and people are moving here.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or at shawnv@spokesman.com.

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