Census: Rock County population stabilizing in post-GM era

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staff, Gazette
Tuesday, March 19, 2013

— After census data showed migration away from the area is slowing down, a state demographer said Monday that Rock County's population appears to be stabilizing.

The county's population ticked upward slightly between 2010 and 2012, growing by .1 percent, according to estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week.

The increase came despite a net exodus of more than 1,200 people over the two-year period, data showed. Birth rates made up the difference and gave the county a slight gain.

Migration has slowed in the past year, however, as the county saw a net loss of just 174 people between 2011 and 2012, compared to 1,062 people the year before.

David Egan-Robertson, a demographer at UW-Madison's Applied Population Laboratory, said one reason the county's population is more stable now is that residents who wanted to leave after the General Motors plant closed already have done so.

Those who have stayed this long after the GM plant shut down likely are sticking around, he said.

Wisconsin as a whole saw its population rise .7 percent, according to the data, which is based on the 2010 census and includes population estimates for July 1 of 2011 and 2012.

Like Rock County, the state had a net loss of people from migration, and then made up for it with higher birth rates.

Dane County grew the most, adding more than 15,000 residents for a 3.2 percent increase.

Metropolitan counties like Dane County—as well as Brown and Eau Claire counties, which also grew by 2 percent or more—tend to add residents in tough economies, Egan-Robertson said.

Job opportunities in those locations tend to draw people away from more rural areas, which then see their populations decline, he said.

"When economic times are not the best, there's going to be some draining away of people, particularly from the rural counties," Egan-Robertson said.

Unlike in other counties that struggle with declining populations, slow growth is not much of a concern, said Nick Osborne, assistant to the Rock County administrator.

For example, Rusk County in northwest Wisconsin lost 3 percent of its residents while neighboring Price County lost 2 percent, according to the census.

"The fact that we're holding on to our population, and the slight increase, is a positive sign," Osborne said.

Of bigger concern, Osborne said, is how Rock County's population is changing.

Baby boomers are growing older and the county is becoming more diverse, he said, noting that likely will lead to an increased demand for some local services.

Walworth County saw a positive net migration, according to the census, as its population grew by .6 percent.

Whether you see the growth rates in Walworth and Rock counties as a positive or negative likely depends on your perspective, officials said.

A growing population is an asset to some, but others might see it as crowding rural communities, said Walworth County Administrator David Bretl.

"Somebody in the construction industry would say that's not fast enough growth," Bretl said. "For somebody who is out in the country … they would probably say that's faster than they would even like.

"I would say it's a normal percentage of growth for recent years."

Last updated: 7:55 am Monday, April 29, 2013

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