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U.S. Census Director touring N.D. to see booming population firsthand

U.S. Census Director John Thompson is touring North Dakota this week to witness the state’s booming population for himself after an invitation from Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

Thompson will make stops in Fargo, Bismarck and Williston on his three-day trip, which will include meeting with local officials from western towns and Native American leaders.

“I’m looking forward to seeing first-hand the dramatic growth in North Dakota,” Thompson said in a statement issued Monday. “We want to make local and state officials aware of the wide range of economic and population statistics produced by the Census Bureau, to help them plan.”

The Census Bureau named North Dakota the fastest-growing state in the U.S. in 2013. The official 2010 census counted the state’s population as 672,591; by 2013, it estimated that number had grown by 7.6 percent to 723,393.

This is Thompson’s first visit to North Dakota since he was named director of the Census Bureau last August. Heitkamp was on the committee that confirmed him.

Heitkamp said the idea for the trip came about after a call from oil- and gas-producing counties to look at the census. Federal numbers from 2010 aren’t a representative portrayal of the state now, she said, which could hinder North Dakota’s competitiveness for government funding tied to population.

“There were any number of federal grants that could not be adequately distributed to deal with the need,” she said. “I wanted him to come out and take a look at how do you count people accurately in a time of exploding growth? We don’t know what it will look like in 2020.”

On Monday, Thompson met with representatives of HERE, a geospacial mapping company based in Fargo. The Census Bureau is considering partnering with private companies on the next census to get a more accurate population count.

He will meet with officials from Williston, Watford City and potentially other western towns later in the week.

“We wanted our state and county officials to be able to have a conversation with census folks about our growing needs and growing communities,” Heitkamp said. “He’s going to be all over the state of North Dakota, which speaks volumes.”

North Dakota’s population growth is state-wide, but the most acute can be seen in the oil-producing western counties, including Williams and Stark.

Fargo and Bismarck both made the list of fastest-growing metropolitan areas following the 2013 Census Bureau population estimates. Williston, Dickinson and Minot are among the nation’s top 10 fastest-growing micropolitan areas, with greater Dickinson going from 24,199 in 2010 to an estimated 28,000 in 2013.

Thompson said he is excited to “witness firsthand the dramatic growth,” especially in Williston, the heart of the oil boom.

“I’ve heard it’s growing really, really fast and they’re having trouble with services keeping up with the influx of people,” he said. “I’ve also been told that words alone can’t describe what I’m going to see in Williston.”

Dickinson City Administrator Shawn Kessel said this “modern-day gold rush” is “something that you have to feel in order to believe.”

He added: “I think North Dakota is not known for having census gains on the magnitude that we’re having now.”

Though cities can keep track of their population through water use and other utilities, the numbers aren’t tied to reimbursement or funding, he said.

Echoing Heitkamp, Kessel said accurate census numbers are crucial to making sure cities can provide services to meet the growing population.

“It is really important that they get it right when it comes to counting those people, because the results of that have a lot of dollars waiting on them, riding on them,” he said.