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Tom Gillaspy: Forces of change heightened by economics and demographics

MORRIS - The United States is getting old.

Over the next decade, as many people will turn 65 as have turned 65 in the last three decades. By 2020, the United States will have the same number of people over 65 years old as school aged people.

And while Stevens County has resisted the trend of declining population in rural America, our county will not be immune to the economic effects of these demographic changes, former state demographer Tom Gillaspy told a gathering of Stevens County leaders on Tuesday at a forum called "Stevens County Vision 2022: Help Create Our Future."

"The forces of change are being heightened right now at an unprecedented level because of the economic pressures and the demographic pressures," said Gillaspy.

Demographic trends in the United States were pretty stable until January 2008, the beginning of the recent economic recession. At that time, The number of births declined by more than 10 percent, citizens stopped migrating to suburban areas, unemployment and poverty increased, and the U.S. shifted from a young society to an old society.

These changes reflect big shifts in trends that seemed immutable. U.S. citizens are no longer highly mobile, moving to where opportunities are, and we are no longer a nation of young people who take risks, Gillaspy explained.

"Around the world, we were known as a brash young society that took risks that no other society would take; that ended in 2008," he said.

Gillaspy spent a short time focusing on demographic trends specific to Stevens County. Population remained relatively stable between 1940 to 1990, with a slight decline around 2000. The most recent demographic projections show that the county population is expected to continue to decline over the next several decades, Gillaspy said.

However, most counties in the central third of the United States are also declining - a trend Gillaspy said has little to do with common blames like differential tax rates and more to do with the prairie and rural nature of those counties.

Another concern across the United States is our aging population, which will increase rapidly over the next several decades. The problem, Gillaspy said, is that the labor force of the United States is changing - retirements are increasing, and there is a mismatch of skills between the jobs we have and the young job seekers who are available.

The way to avoid these problems is to increase productivity and innovation, Gillaspy argued.

"It is a simple additive: simple economic growth equals growth in the workforce plus real productivity growth," Gillaspy said. "If we are simply to maintain the level of real economic growth this decade that we've experienced on average over the last two decades before the recession ... we will have to have per worker productivity increases greater than anything we've ever experienced since World War II on a sustained basis."

However, Gillaspy also suggested that one trend moving forward will be that location will be less important for all types of jobs in the future, and companies that are bound to a specific location will find competition increasingly difficult.

After Gillaspy's presentation, a panel of local leaders representing the public and private sectors had the chance to respond to his comments. Overwhelmingly, the panel saw many positives for the future of Stevens County, especially in an economy where location is not a driver of economic change and because of the assets that the University of Minnesota, Morris brings to the community when compared to neighboring counties.

Lawyer Warrenn Anderson noted that Stevens County is unique because of it's proximity to UMM, but that the community needs to "accelerate efforts" to use the assets of UMM and try to keep students in the community.

Bart Finzel, UMM Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs and Dean, noted that three of the themes from Gillaspy's speech were strengths for the Stevens County Community - the importance of innovation, that location is less important for future jobs, and that manufacturing will happen where there is talent.

"Stevens County certainly can change the trajectory that was presented here," Finzel said. "The economy in Stevens County is much more diverse than neighboring counties ... I think these advantages really do mean we can change the demographic story in Stevens County at least."

County Coordinator Brian Giese also noted the unique assets of Stevens County as compared to other rural communities.

"Stevens County is sort of an island out here compared to other counties with a younger workforce demographic," said Giese.

John Rau, president and CEO of Stevens Community Medical Center, noted that his facility has been able to do some good recruiting because it is located in a small community.

"In my estimation, this community has more going for it than any community in west central Minnesota," Rau said. "We happen to be strategically located 50 miles from three other large communities ... we have a tendency to have individuals that want to be close to larger communities but still want to be in a community of this size."

Kevin Wulf, Human Resources Director at Riverview, asked whether residents of Stevens County were sending mixed messages about their commitment to the community - appreciating the benefits of small town life while simultaneously looking for the benefits of a big community.

"It feels like we're caught between a rock and a hard place - on one hand, we really like the small town community feel, and on the other hand, we want to keep growing and expanding and becoming one of those larger communities," Wulf noted.

"We have to ask ourselves where we're at on that and what we really want for the future and what the story is that we're telling," he continued, pointing out that residents say they love small towns by run to Alexandria or Willmar to buy groceries or services that aren't available in town.

"Are we prolonging the small town feel by running somewhere else or are we killing ourselves by doing that?" Wulf asked.

Organizers of Tuesday's forum have scheduled a future meeting on Monday, Jan. 14 to continue conversations about the trends Gillaspy pointed out and how Stevens County can position itself to move forward to 2022.