Walworth County population holds steady

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Andrea Anderson
Sunday, February 9, 2014

ELKHORN – The Walworth County population is growing at a speed drastically different than its historic past.

Since the 2010 census, the county's population has grown by .3 percent, or 351 persons.

That's less than the state average of .5 percent, according to the Department of Administration final population estimates released in January.

During the 1990s, Walworth County was the fourth fastest growing county in the state, adding 17,013 residents in ten years or about 1,700 new residents each year, said David Bretl, Walworth County administrator.

From 2000-10, the county's population grew by 10,215 residents, from 92,013 to 102,228, or about 1 percent each year, the Census reports.

During the same time period, Elkhorn was the county's fastest growing municipality, said Elkhorn City Administrator Sam Tapson.

Elkhorn's population grew from 7,305 to 10,084, or about 38 percent, according to Census figures.

The population estimates reveal the city actually lost 153 residents since the 2010 Census. 

“The conventional wisdom was that Walworth County was growing by leaps and bounds and was one of the fastest growing counties in the state,” Bretl said. “While there is historical truth to that, you have to go back some time to when that happened.”

Bretl monitors the Census and the Department of Administration final population estimates closely in order to work with other county officials and representatives when making decisions about building expansion and taxes.

Tapson doesn't put much faith into the Census and Department of Administration numbers because each reports different figures.

Instead, he looks at building permits.

During the 2000s, the city issued anywhere from 40 to 60 building permits a year. That has since trickled down, and last year the city issued only six, Tapson said.

Regardless of the numbers, Tapson is “not overly concerned” because he believes three years isn't enough time to define something as a trend.

The Department of Administration estimates the Walworth County population  to be 102,579.

Bretl doesn't have concrete reasons, only educated guesses, about what factors could account for the slow growth.

“I'm sure the recession or economic banking collapse in 2008 played into it, but it seems to me it has causes beyond that because that rapid growth was waning even before that collapse,” he said.

Other hypotheses include increases in gas prices, possible employment options and property values.

Since 2010, 17 of the county's 30 municipalities had a population increase. The city of Whitewater has the largest increase with 350 people. The city of Elkhorn reported the largest decrease.

Like Bretl, Tapson says that could be due to the economy.

“This has not been a booming economy,” Tapson said, citing the housing market collapse and loss of jobs that have continued to plague the country.

How the decrease in population affects taxes, budgets and communities in the county is something Bretl is looking into.

The decrease affects where the jobs are, Bretl said. People who moved into the county to work for construction or housing companies in the 1990s and 2000s could be searching elsewhere for work, then moving closer to those jobs.

Cities also depend on growth for budgets, Bretl said, so taxes could increase.

Tapson said decreases in population also can affect housing.

“The obvious implication is that there must be some housing vacancies,” Tapson said. “There may be a decline in retailing because they feed off of rooftops.”

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