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Talking Points: Local economy not great but it's not as bad as we might think

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So often we like to take in what we perceive to be the general trends unfolding around us and jump to conclusions.

Take this, for example: Rural Minnesota -- especially West Central Minnesota -- is dying a slow death. Young people are leaving as soon as they receive their high school diplomas, and families struggling to make ends meet are leaving the region in search of better-paying jobs. Few new business ventures are started, and established businesses retrench and keep payrolls low because many of the experienced, reliable workers aren't sticking around.

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But some numbers tend to tell a different story. Each year, the West Central Initiative compiles a Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for the nine-county region that includes Stevens County. The plan allows WCI to maintain Economic Development District status, which in turn allows WCI to apply for federal development funds for the region.

In this year's update, the regional data paints a fairly positive picture of the region and Stevens County that contradicts some of the doomsday predictions for rural living and commerce.

While Stevens County's population decreased by 49 people from 2007 to 2008, the county's population decreased just 1.3 percent between 1930 and 2000, and the population is projected to increase by 3.4 percent from 2005 to 2035. That's a small increase compared to the 25 percent to 32 percent growth rates expected in Becker, Clay and Douglas counties, but at least Stevens maybe won't lose the 24 percent projected for Traverse County.

Income per capita in Stevens County in 2008 was $40,186, which is 94 percent of Minnesota's 2008 figure of about $43,000, and it is on par with the U.S. per capita income of $40,166.

The county's unemployment rate in 2008 was 4.6 percent, well below state and national averages. March 2010 unemployment figures jumped to 6.5 percent, but that is still the third-lowest rate in the region.

The county's industry makeup could help it survive and possibly even thrive well into this century. According to the CEDS, natural resources and mining saw a 38.5 percent increase in employment between 2006 and 2008, and education and health services employed almost 1,500 people in 2008. Manufacturing employed 705 people. Together, the two industry sectors accounted for 43 percent of the county's total employment.

While there almost certainly has been a drop in the last two years, in 2008 manufacturing's average weekly wage of almost $900 represented a 13 percent increase from prior years. Manufacturing and public administration wages of $849 and $834 ranked second and third, respectively, in the county.

But the CEDS does identify troubling patterns. The wage gap is increasing in the region, and while the wages in the region are increasing over previous years, they lag behind the state average and are not keeping pace with growth overall.

Poverty rates, while not extreme compared to the national average, also were not trending positively. Except for Douglas and Wilkin counties, the nine-county region showed a greater poverty rate than the Minnesota average from 2006 to 2008.

But, buttressed by agriculture and a diverse range of business, Stevens County was spared the harsh severity of the recent recession. The county is not drying up and blowing away, and the misguided belief that it is only drags down efforts to try and turn the few areas where improvements are needed.

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