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Continued growth: U.S. Census: Dickinson, Williston fastest-growing micropolitan areas in the country

Women check out a grill at Dickinson’s Sierra Ridge Apartment Homes in Dickinson while other residents gather around the fire pit on Oct. 4. The complex was built to accommodate growth in the city. (Dustin Monke/The Dickinson Press)

FARGO — Once again, Williston and Dickinson are the fastest growing micropolitan areas in the country, and other cities in North Dakota are following suit.

The Williston micropolitan area population grew last year by 8.7 percent, or 2,567 people, to 32,130, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Dickinson area was close behind, growing 7 percent, or 1,995, to 30,372.

Williston, the hub of the booming Bakken Formation, was the fastest- growing micropolitan area, a classification for urbanized areas with a population falling between 10,000 and 50,000.

While growth in the Fargo and Bismarck metropolitan areas cooled a bit last year, youthful vigor still appear to be propelling growth.

Last year, the Fargo-Moorhead metro area’s population grew at 2 percent, or 4,438 people, to reach 228,291, according to new Census Bureau estimates.

That continues a trajectory of consistent growth — maintaining a pace that is neither tortoise nor hare – that has averaged 1.8 percent yearly since 2000 and has more than doubled the metro area’s population since 1980.

The increase has been driven by an influx of people in their 20s, a key child-bearing age, which in turn begets more growth through births.

The youthful growth trend, identified in a recent demographic study to guide transportation planners, outstripped projections made four years ago, which predicted Fargo-Moorhead’s population this year would reach 225,830, a figure exceeded last year.

“I’d say population growth has been pretty significant in Fargo-Moorhead, particularly on the North Dakota side, in the last 15 years, said David Burns, a transportation planner for the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments, which closely tracks demographic trends.

Burns recently assembled a population pyramid for the metro area that showed the largest population groups are those ages 20 to 24 — “a huge blip” — and 25 to 29, followed by those 30 to 34.

Because of its large segment of college students, Fargo-Moorhead’s population has always had a healthy population of young adults. What’s changed in recent years, Burns and others agreed, is the metro is creating more jobs that keep them here after graduation.

Still, Fargo’s steady growth trend has prevailed most years since after World War II, said Jim Gilmour, the city’s planning director.

A growth burst occurred over the past three years, he added, largely fueled by the energy boom and strong farm economy.

“People are moving here for all sorts of jobs,” Gilmour said, noting a recent spike in construction jobs. The Fargo-Moorhead employment base skews heavily toward service jobs including finance and insurance, health care and higher education.

In other highlights from the Census Bureau’s population estimates for metropolitan and micropolitan areas in 2014:

The Bismarck metropolitan area grew to 126,597 last year, growing by 2,604, compared to an estimated gain of 3,528 residents in 2013.

Bismarck’s 2.1 percent population gain in 2014 was enough to rank as the fastest-growing metropolitan area outside the South and West, according to the Census Bureau.

The Fargo metropolitan area was a shade behind in its growth rate, at 2 percent.

“It’s like a rounding error,” Kevin Iverson, manager of the North Dakota Census Office, said of the slight difference in growth rates.

But Iverson wondered if that growth was sustainable and if cities could keep up with infrastructure improvements to keep that growth going.

“At least in this part of the country, we’re in new territory there,” he added. “It’ll be interesting to find out.”

Because oil development has slowed as a result of the sharp drop in oil prices, growth likely will moderate, giving local governments and others time to catch up to the feverish growth, he said.

Eventually oil prices will rebound, and economic and population growth will be lifted, Iverson said.

“This is a temporary hurdle, and eventually prices go back up. It’s a question of when and how much and the rate,” he said. “It’s not this sense that people are heading out the door.”

Overall, North Dakota’s population grew 2 percent last year, a growth rate that closely mirrors its two largest metro areas, Fargo and Bismarck, as well as Ward County, which includes Minot, which grew 2 percent, to 69,384.

Ward County appears poised to overtake Grand Forks County, which gained 827 people last year, or 1.2 percent, reaching 70,138.

Minnesota’s Clay County grew 1.1 percent, a gain of 640 to reach 61,288. That growth rate was almost double Minnesota’s 0.6 percent growth in 2014.

Fargo-Moorhead’s steady growth might not get the attention of Oil Patch boom towns, but it is the kind planners like to see.

“That’s the kind of growth you’d want in a metropolitan area,” Burns said, “sustainable growth.”

Next year, he said, when F-M MetroCOG issues its next population forecast, it will be revised upward, likely predicting a population for 2040 much larger than the 298,070 projected four years ago.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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