Lee County has lost 26% of its population since 1960
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – There seems to be a confluence of efforts to get population trends reversed in Lee County.
At Monday’s regular meeting of the Lee County Board of Supervisors, Lee County Economic Development Group President Dennis Fraise said he’d like to see a task force created to address the dwindling population of the county.
The move comes on the heels of an announcement in January that Fort Madison Mayor Matt Mohrfeld wanted to increase the population base of Fort Madison by 1,000 over the next four years.
Fraise was presenting an update of economic development efforts in the county when population took front and center.
Fraise said the county has lost 11,600 people in the past 60 years, or 26%. Since the last 10-year census in 2010, the county had lost 6% or just over 2,300 people.
Fraise said thousands of counties across the country are facing the same issue and are looking for answers, which could result in competing resources to address the problem.
“What I’m suggesting today is that we create a Lee County Task Force to take a look at our population, frankly, our population loss,” Fraise said.
He said the state population grew about 5% over the past decade, and Dallas County was the fastest growing at a 55% increase since 2010, with more than 37,000 new residents. Fourteen of Iowa’s 15 largest cities had population increases over that span.
Lee County is 21st in population out of Iowa’s 99 counties and Fraise said adding 1,882 residents would put Lee County in the top 20, while adding 6,550 would put the county in the top 15.
“All of us here are about the same vintage and we remember the 1960s which was the heyday of our population,” Fraise said.
“Our population in Lee County is down 26% since that time period. So, essentially, one in every four people in Lee County has left. Think about that and let that wash over you for just a moment.”
He said Keokuk and Fort Madison have both dropped 6% in the past 10 years and more than 30% over the past 60 years.
“These things do have our attention, obviously. What I’m recommending with the task force is there’s a lot of good work being done in a lot of these areas, but we’re kind of silent right now. We need to create a bigger task force,” he said.
“Mayor Mohrfeld wants to grow Fort Madison by a 1,000 people, and that’s fabulous, and so we want to support those efforts, but we need to have a bigger conversation.”
The effort will require looks at housing, marketing and rebranding, child care, transportation, and education and training, Fraise said.
His comments echoed Mohrfeld’s who told Fort Madison’s City Council last month that they needed to focus on housing, and marketing and branding of the city in addition to jobs, tourism, beautification, and other facets of growth.
“I’m asking to partner with the supervisors on this. I think it’s a good use of everyone’s time,” Fraise said.
“If these numbers don’t get your attention, they should. We are trending in the wrong direction and we cannot continue.”
He said the county’s strong industrial base, Southeast Iowa Regional Medical Center’s Fort Madison campus, and the Mississippi River are areas to highlight in Lee County.
“We have a lot of strategic advantages, but it’s time to get together and put together a comprehensive plan as to how we move this forward. This is not something where we come back in a year and say we added 6,000 people. This is a five-year or ten-year plan.”
In an unrelated issue, Fraise said efforts are underway to address a shortage of natural gas in the county, a predicament that has derailed several large economic development projects.
“We recently had a project in the Keokuk area that we code named “Shallowtail” and the first thing we started with was our utility partners.
“The infrastructure was there but it came back, not surprisingly, that the natural gas was not available through the national pipeline. It was the same problem we had with project “Hobo” down by the fertilizer plant.”
Fraise said efforts are ramping up with area industrial partners, utilities, and state officials to find a solution to the problem. He said the Iowa Economic Development Agency is also involved in the discussions.
Dana Millard, LCEDG’s Project Director told the board that LCEDG has reached more than 4,800 students with the group’s Grow Lee and STEM programming.
“We’re very excited with the trajectory we’ve had with our Grow Lee and our workforce efforts,” Millard said.
She also pointed out some programming on March 11th and 12th where a regional STEM Festival will be held at SCC’s West Burlington Campus. This year, organizers added a high school component on Friday with more than 250 students already signed up. The traditional STEM Festival will be held on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.