Officials weigh in on numbers; Conservation director says it’s time to fund IWILL Trust
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – The 2020 U.S. Census data shows another decrease in population in Lee County, but several local officials are hoping to use the new numbers as a springboard for furthering regional cooperation efforts.
According to numbers released last week from the U.S. Census Bureau, Lee County’s population dropped to 33,555 which is down about 6.4% from the 35,862 recorded in the 2010 census. The 2010 count reflected a reduction in population of 5.8% or about 2,200 residents. At the turn of the century in 2000, the county’s population was at 38,052.
The biggest drop since 1850 was in 1990 when the census showed a drop of 10.3% from the 43,106 tabulated county residents
In the 2020 count, only two of the counties 11 tracts, located on the north and northwest sections of Fort Madison showed increases in the count.
Tract 4902 which stretches from approximately High Point Road down Hwy. 61, then west across Avenue E to 18th, down to Business 61 and all the way to 270th Street near Montrose, suffered a decline of close to 21%.
Fort Madison Mayor Matt Mohrfeld said he’s optimistic that movement is already underway to help curb the problem. He also said you have peel the layers back on the data because across the country family sizes are getting smaller.
“You really got to break those numbers down and look first of all at what is your rate of replacing people,” Mohrfeld said. “By that I mean what are the family sizes. The trend in the U.S. in the number of kids has notched down. So just through replacement alone were notching down our population. That’s one side of it.”
Mohrfeld said the other side is loss of talent and he said that’s due to rural areas struggling to create the same opportunities and quality of life measures in place at metro areas in the state.
Dallas County, which includes the cities of Waukee and Dallas Center, had the fourth highest rate of growth in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Right now we have jobs we can’t fill and we’re not attracting or developing a workforce. Now we got a look at where can we develop workforce and attract people,” he said.
“You’ve heard me say we are going to win the game on training and attracting the trades people with the new education center. I know we have to attract and pay them a bunch of money and make them a key part of our community. Are we going to lose the professional actuarial talent to the metro area, maybe, but with work-at-home maybe not if we can showcase a nice pace and quality of life.”
Lee County Economic Development Group President Dennis Fraise said the numbers were a bit more a dip than he thought they would be and maybe they have something to do with the counting process itself. But he said either way, he’s looking at the numbers as a way to increase conversations countywide on how to slow the three straight decades of population loss.
Fraise pointed to the fact that two-thirds of Iowa’s counties were down in population and most of those are considered rural settings.
“In our region, Lee County had the largest percentage drop and that should give us pause. It’s a rural problem and people are looking to communities in Iowa that are growing,” he said.
“But this presents an opportunity for all of us to get together in the communities and have a bigger plan of how we address this. We’ve got a lot of great people here and we need the bigger conversation on what we’re missing. What do we not have that makes people want to move out of here.”
Fraise also said the county hasn’t always had the relationships in place to move forward together.
“There’s a trust between organizations that didn’t exist in years past,” he said. “We’re willing to bring everyone together and either lead or be a part of those conversations. We’re at the right time in history that people are willing to work together.”
Nathan Unsworth, Lee County Conservation District director, said the quality of life issue that is integral to conservation operations, is one aspect that needs to be addressed
“We need to help our communities create outdoor recreational opportunities. Look where people are moving – they have bike trails and new things going up. They are constantly doing things young people look for, and many of those people’s parents are moving there to be closer to kids and grandkids,” Unsworth said.
He said it’s also time for Iowa to fully fund the IWILL Trust fund, which is officially known as the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Legislators have not approved the sales tax mechanism that would fund the trust.
“The important thing to remember is that Lee County is not the only county declining. IWILL is a huge thing to help not only the county, but Fort Madison and Keokuk to get trails up and expand rec opportunities. This would be the way to bring more money toward those efforts, but we need the legislators to act to fund it.”
Dr. Erin Slater, superintendent for Fort Madison Community School District said population directly correlates to student enrollment, which is the major factor in determining public school funding. Therefore the overall health of the county has a major impact on the health of the school districts
“We know that we have economic opportunities in Lee County with unfilled jobs in our manufacturing facilities alone. This is one reason that the FMCSD will continue to partner with LCEDG in finding exciting and unique ways to partner together, with such projects as the Career Exploration Center, to work with our students in seeing first hand how working in Lee County after high school is a financially rewarding and viable pathway, which in turn supports the economic health of our area,” Slater said.
Central Lee Superintendent Dr Andy Crozier said the decline has been relatively slow and steady and schools have been able to move forward, but he said any sudden decline would be critical.
“It’s always concerning to see population going down. It impacts all school districts and other entities for our community,” he said. “Central Lee has been able to buck that trend over the past several years. We’ve been able to attract kids from other areas, but ultimately you want to see the county rise as a whole. It’s just better for the whole system.”
Crozier also said agriculture opportunities locally shouldn’t be left out of the conversation. He said not everyone will go into trades, or go to college.
“When they talk about trades, they typically don’t include ag as part of that trade group. There are numerous opportunities in Lee county to be employed and it’s not just trades. We do a great job at Central Lee to prepare people. We have to engage everyone if we want to keep them here.”
Fraise said Lee County has a lot of what people are looking for, it just needs a better message.
“We sit here with the river and it’s such a huge asset. We just had the Sweet Corn Festival and RiverFest. We have what people want, we just need to do a better job of packaging it and selling it.”
Mohrfeld said there is a lot going on that a census doesn’t give value to. He said housing stock in Fort Madison is on the rise, the new marina project has legs, roads are getting fixed and parks are getting improved.
“People are going to to say, look at the number your town’s dying,” Mohrfeld said. “Wait a minute, the family size has reduced, and yes we’ve had some egress in people, but when you add it all up we’ve reached a stabilizing point. Now it’s time to build up from where we are.”