Iowa’s population is growing at a rate of 2.7 percent, just below the national average of 3.5 percent.
Not all of the state is growing, however. In fact, 72 of its 99 counties are declining in population. In general, the state’s metropolitan areas are growing, while its rural areas are shedding residents, where deaths and out-migration have surpassed births and in-migration.
One southeast Iowa county has proven to be a major exception to that rule. Jefferson County, the 39th most populous county in the state with 18,381 residents, has grown by 9.2 percent since the 2010 Census, according to estimates released by the U.S. Census Department, current through July 1, 2018.
Its neighbor to the northeast, Washington County, has kept pace with the rest of the state, growing by just over 2 percent since 2010. Henry County is experiencing a very minor decline in population, a 0.2 percent loss since the last official count.
Only five counties in Iowa are growing faster than Jefferson County, and they are all in the Des Moines or Cedar Rapids/Iowa City metro areas. Where is the growth coming from? Other countries. Since 2010, Jefferson County has seen a positive net-migration of 2,187 international residents. Without that international migration, Jefferson County would have declined by about 650 people because there were about 100 more deaths than births (1,336 deaths to 1,238 births), and a net loss of 546 residents to “domestic” migration, meaning people who have moved to other counties or other states.
Washington County’s population was estimated at 22,141, having grown by 2.07 percent since 2010. Unlike Jefferson County, its growth has come entirely from its large number of births. Births have outpaced deaths by a tally of 2,428 births to 1,995 deaths. Both net domestic and international migration have been modest, with a slight growth of 76 in net international migration and a net loss of 54 in domestic migration.
Henry County’s population has been stable for a number of years right around 20,000 people, and the 2018 estimate puts it at 20,067, a 0.19 percent decrease from 2010, which amounts to 78 fewer people. On the plus side, births are outpacing deaths since 2010, 1,900 births to 1,779 deaths. International migration has helped a little, too, with a net increase of 133, but both of those gains have been offset by a net loss in domestic migration of 341 residents.
Fairfield Economic Development Association executive director Joshua Laraby said Jefferson County’s population growth is particularly strong in the 24-35 aged cohort, and in the over 65 category, too. He said it can be explained by an influx of students to Fairfield’s Maharishi University of Management, and because all sectors of the local economy are thriving.
“The manufacturing, financial and health care sectors are all growing,” Laraby said. “On top of that, the university [M.U.M.] continues to increase its enrollment, most recognizably in its masters programs in computer science and [business administration].”
One Fairfield-based business that has grown substantially in recent years is Cambridge Investment Research. It has added more than 200 employees in the past five years, going from 659 associates in 2014 to 885 this year. Not all of those associates work in Fairfield, but it is a clear illustration of one of the many places in Jefferson County where growth is occurring.
Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy said the growth since 2010 has been nothing short of remarkable. The Union asked Malloy if the increase could be due to a statistical fluke, perhaps a change in the way residents are counted. Malloy said he didn’t think so.
“Do [these estimates] pass the eye test? Yes they do,” he said.
In addition to the growth at Cambridge, Malloy mentioned that other large employers such as Dexter Apache, Agri-Industrial Plastics, Aeron and FoodChain ID are all adding employees. Malloy said Fairfield’s growth is evident in new housing construction, which has been especially strong on the north side of town in a development called North Campus Village, and in new condos on the south side built by Neighborhood Builders & Developers.
Malloy said another sign of growth is the degree to which apartments are in demand. He said more and more single-family homes are being converted into apartments to accommodate the demand. He estimated that more than 50 percent of Fairfield’s housing stock are rentals.
Washington Economic Development Group director David Collins said population growth is widely regarded as a good thing. And with that in mind, he was pleased to learn that Washington County is the 15th fastest growing county in the state.
“When we’re trying to attract businesses to town, we can show them that growth, that our population is not stagnant, and that’s a positive sign. It shows them we’re a prospering area,” Collins said.
The Union asked Collins what’s driving Washington County’s economy, and Collins did not hesitate in answering “agriculture.” On top of that, Washington has a few large employers that are unique to the area.
He mentioned that two formerly small operations – Bazooka Farm Star and Brava Roof Tile – have grown by leaps and bounds in the past six years. Bazooka Farm Star went from eight employees to 105. Brava Roof Tile has gone from eight to 60. Another, Premier1Supplies, will add 25 jobs in the next three years.
And the growth is not all happening in the city of Washington, either, but also and even especially in the towns in the northern part of the county: Wellman, Kalona and Riverside. Mid-Prairie School District is attracting 400 students from outside the district, while losing only 20 to open enrollment. Collins said those towns benefit by their proximity to Iowa City and Johnson County, which has grown 15 percent since 2010.
Collins said there’s every reason to think Washington County’s population will continue to grow as it adds amenities. For example, Wellman and Kalona have opened YMCAs, and Washington has a new YMCA under construction. The county gets a big boost from the Washington County Riverboat Foundation, which pumps $4 million every year into community grants.
Collins mentioned that the county has added 500 jobs between 2009 and 2019, according to Iowa Workforce Development. The only challenge will be finding enough workers to fill them all.
“The construction industry is short of employees, and I keep hearing we have a shortage of electricians and plumbers,” he said.
A housing study conducted this past spring revealed a pent-up demand for housing of all kinds, from affordable to market rate to senior housing. Building enough homes will be one of the keys in unlocking Washington County’s potential.
Kristi Ray, executive vice president of the Mt. Pleasant Chamber of Commerce and Area Economic Development, said she’s familiar with the Census estimates showing a slight decline in Henry County. However, she’s not yet convinced those figures are an accurate representation of changes in the community.
For instance, she mentioned that she’s not sure whether the prior Census figures counted patients at the Mental Health Institute, which closed in 2015. Apart from the Census, every other piece of data suggests Mt. Pleasant and Henry County are growing.
“We don’t really see a decrease in residents in Mt. Pleasant,” she said. “We can see our local businesses expanding.”
Ray said Mt. Pleasant is poised for growth in that it has more job openings than workers. She said a lot of people commute to the city, some from as far as Kahoka, Missouri, 50 miles away.
The Union asked Ray if Mt. Pleasant and Henry County had a population goal in mind. She said that, though it may seem arbitrary, there is a certain population the city would like to achieve, and that’s 10,000 residents. Mt. Pleasant has hovered in the 8,500-8,900 range for a few decades, but if it could add another 1,000 people, it would be able to attract new stores to town.
One of the most common questions Ray hears from the public is, “Why don’t we have X?” where “X” is some sort of fast-food restaurant or retail outlet. She said the reason is as simple as the town not having enough residents, but if Mt. Pleasant could get to that five-figure number, it would start turning heads.
“People ask me things like ‘Why don’t we have a Pancheros?’ I looked on the company’s website, and they say they want at least 25,000 people in a city they move to. That’s their business model,” she said. “We’re just not big enough.”