Rock and Walworth counties saw some of Wisconsin’s highest rates of population growth in 2018, continuing the region’s economic upswing following the Great Recession.
Rock County’s population swelled by 809 people in 2018, slightly less than its 2017 increase, according to population estimates released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau. Walworth County, meanwhile, grew by 762 people, the most its population has spiked in one year since at least 2010.
Among all Wisconsin counties, Rock and Walworth counties ranked seventh and eighth respectively for population growth. Dane, Waukesha, Brown, Outagamie, St. Croix and Eau Claire counties ranked higher.
In 2017, Rock County’s population rose by an estimated 926 people, the most it had grown since at least 2010. According to the 2018 estimates, Rock County’s total population reached 163,129 and Walworth County’s reached 103,718.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s estimates largely match the state Department of Administration 2018 estimates for Rock and Walworth counties, which lists Rock County’s population at 160,349 and Walworth County’s at 103,535.
Walworth County Administrator Dave Bretl said county residents historically have been split on local population growth. He said some value the county’s vastness and don’t want it to resemble a sprawling urban area. Yet growth is integral to finding workers and developing a workforce, he said.
“Certainly people leaving is a negative,” Bretl said. “Trying to grow the population base at least so there’s enough working age people to hold jobs is increasingly important going forward.”
John Beckord, president of Forward Janesville, said a rise in population means more people with disposable incomes. It also could enlarge the local workforce, he said, but he couldn’t say if that was the case last year without knowing the demographics of Rock County’s growth.
For example, Beckord said, some new residents might be retirees or young families with children. When asked which demographic is best for economic development, Beckord said his hunch is that young families are more likely to hunker down in Janesville long term and provide decades of service to an employer.
Beckord also said the surge in population helps explain Janesville’s increasingly tight housing market.
Rock County Planning Director Colin Byrnes said not all growth is necessarily good. It depends on who the new residents are and where they are located, he said, and he couldn’t speculate on the local impacts of the estimates released Thursday.
In the 1990s, Bretl said, Walworth County was consistently among the top four fastest-growing counties in the state, adding an average of 1,700 new residents each year. That began slowing sharply before the recession, he said.
Bretl said more people in the county require additional services. A certain percentage of new members will engage with local courts, health and human services and law enforcement.
But he said some growth is necessary for counties to maintain prosperity, economic growth and viability.
“Those places that are shrinking or are aging significantly without having younger folks moving in,” Bretl said. “That’s a problem.”