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Can Koochiching County come back from the brink of demographic doom?

The county’s population peaked at around 18,000 in 1960. By 2050, it could be less than half that.

view from back of boat of wake in lake at sunset
To the right people, the International Falls area isn’t a hard sell.

RaeAnne Conat, 36, grew up among the pines, lakes and rivers of Koochiching County, just a stone’s throw from Canada in one of Minnesota’s most beautiful — and most isolated — spots. After high school, she moved down to the Twin Cities, went to college and tried out Uptown living. She got married and moved out to Tacoma, Washington, when her husband was stationed in the Air Force.

Six years ago, she moved back to Koochiching County (population: less than 13,000), looking to be closer to family. There, she started Swanky Sweet Pea, a boutique that makes bath bombs, salts and soaps that are sold to thousands of retailers across the U.S. With the help of the Internet, Conat has grown the company from a small storefront in International Falls to a manufacturing facility in nearby Ranier with several full-time employees in the last half-decade.

She and her family represent the exception to a rule, and one that will likely have to happen more in  the future to reverse a downward trend: In the last 35 years, Koochiching County lost an estimated 4,845 people — more than a quarter of its 1980 population. In the next 35 years, it could lose nearly as many, according to new population projections from the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

Koochiching County isn’t alone. More than half of Minnesota counties are projected to lose population through 2050, based on calculations by Minnesota State Demographic Center. Most of them are in rural parts of the state, especially parts of northeastern, central, southeast and southwestern Minnesota. Meanwhile the seven-county Twin Cities metro area is projected to see the fastest growth, about 27 percent between 2015 and 2050.

Minnesota county populations: past, present and future
The trajectories of growth and decline are not the same for all Minnesota counties. While state projections foresee some Minnesota counties growing, based on births, deaths and migration, others are projected to shrink. Koochiching County, highlighted in purple below, has seen its population decline steadily since 1980. Meanwhile, the seven metro counties, highlighted in light blue are projected to see the biggest population increases.
Source: Minnesota State Demographic Center

The Minnesota State Demographic Center’s projections, which are updated when there are significant changes to national projections, are based on three factors: birth rates, death rates and migration patterns as they exist across Minnesota today, so things could change. But the estimates are nonetheless useful, as they show where Minnesota’s largely graying population is headed if things stay if the trajectory remains more or less constant, said Senior Projections Demographer Megan Dayton.

“Growth for the majority of counties is going to depend increasingly on migration, as deaths outnumber births (which) happens for the first time statewide in 2040,” she said.

Nowhere is that trend more apparent than in Koochiching. In the last 70 years, Census records show, Koochiching County had a peak population of more than 18,000 people in 1960. That was the height of the baby boom, when the paper and fiberboard industry in Koochiching County were running hot. Since, the number has meandered generally downward, to about 12,700.

What does that mean for places like Koochiching County?

A hundred miles from big box stores

Paul Nevanen thinks about this question pretty much every day. As the director of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority, it’s his job to help attract and retain business and workers in the county.

“It’s a constant reminder that we live with every day that we are on this downward trend,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It’s first and foremost, how do you turn that around, how do you at least stem the flow and stabilize what we’re doing up here. It’s a very big challenge.”

The main industries in Koochiching County, which is the jumping off point to Voyageurs National Park, are timber and tourism. Historically, one of the county’s biggest employers was the Boise paper mill, but the drumbeat of advancing technology has brought less paper use, automation and rounds of layoffs. Unemployment in Koochiching County is often twice the statewide average, Nevanen said. And International Falls, the county seat, is a hundred miles from the nearest outcropping of big box stores, and nearly five hours from the Mall of America (blessedly, if you ask Nevanen, who hates traffic).

In recent years, economic development efforts have focused on diversifying the county’s economic base by focusing on its strengths.

Koochiching County has good schools and a good workforce, Nevanen said, part of the reason UnitedHealthcare has a medical claims processing center there. Its proximity to Canada makes it perfect for the import-export business: the county is a designated foreign trade zone, a program that helps domestic companies compete with international ones, and Nevanen and others have been working to recruit a company to perhaps assemble products shipped in from Canada using the zone. Since it’s so frigid there in the wintertime, car manufacturers take parts to International Falls to test their mettle in cold weather, and now, an Internet company is working to build a data center there, where they’ll save on cooling costs.

But Nevanen is always working to bring more industry to this corner of Minnesota, whose livelihood would benefit from a wider-based economy.

“We certainly have done a lot of self-appraisal here of what our strengths are and what our weaknesses are,” Nevanen said. “We want to be careful not to oversell, but we think we can make a compelling case for the right companies, and we do know that our workforce will be the real key to that.”

Moving back

Conat says International Falls has palpably shrunk since the days when her mom owned a gift shop on Main Street. She remembers the town in those days — the early ‘90s — almost always bustling with shoppers.

Things are a little quieter now, but in the last three years, she’s really started to notice people her age moving back and contributing to the local economy.

“My best friend just bought a restaurant here in Ranier. The place was pretty desolate, pretty quiet, and now she’s busy every day of the week,” Conat said.

Two brothers who grew up vacationing in the area left the booming San Francisco Bay Area to open Loony’s Brew, a brewpub in Ranier last year, Nevanen said.

A local realtor just bought the golf course and is revamping it. Two young women started an upscale boutique in the location of RaeAnne Conat’s original location in International Falls.

“It’s cute, trendy, like something you would see in the Cities. And they’re doing great. It’s been exciting,” Conat said.

If more young people are moving to Koochiching County, it’s not enough to move the needle up on the state’s projections — yet. But if there’s one thing that could help expand economic opportunities in the county, it’s the Internet, Conat said.

“I went to college (in the cities) and there just wasn’t a lot of opportunity for employment up here if you didn’t work at the paper mill,” she said. “Now, being able to work online and have jobs and businesses … you’re not reliant on the local employment opportunities.”

Your ticket home

Koochiching County will need to attract and retain more people like Conat to change its future fortunes. Today, nearly half of Koochiching County’s population is over age 50, and by 2050, it’s projected to lose another 4,129 people to deaths and migration. But that’s not set in stone.

In order to attract a younger crowd, the Economic Development Authority has created a campaign called “Your Ticket Home,” which involves compiling a database who people who grew up in Koochiching County who might consider returning. Efforts are made to reach out to people at class reunions and on social media.

Another possible source of population for places like Koochiching County are people in their fifties and sixties who move full time up to their lake homes and participate in the economy, which is not uncommon, said Ben Winchester, a University of Minnesota Community Vitality extension research fellow who studies migration dynamics in rural Minnesota.

To the right people, the International Falls area isn’t a hard sell. It’s a slower pace of life, and a much lower cost of living than in the cities. And then there’s the natural amenities.

“If I leave work on a Friday, I could be on my dock on an island on Rainy Lake in about 20 minutes,” Nevanen said.