City: Enrollment decline a challenge

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 6, 1999

Albert Lea’s future is not written in stone.

Wednesday, October 06, 1999

Albert Lea’s future is not written in stone. Nor is the city and surrounding county’s future all doom and gloom, city leaders said one day after the school board recommended closing a school to students because of declining enrollment.

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But a projected 1,000 decline in student enrollment over 10 years does present challenges to the entire community, said City Manager Paul Sparks.

&uot;We’re seeing a decline in the number of children born per household,&uot; Sparks said. &uot;It’s been going on for 30-plus years. You got to remember the birth rates started dropping in the 1960s.&uot;

Sparks said this phenomenon is occurring across North America and northern Europe. While he said the shift in demographics doesn’t mean the city’s population is decreasing, it does present labor force challenges.

One reason enrollment is declining is because of a lack of families of childbearing years, he said. That’s the challenge because they are the labor force.

He said it’s more than a challenge. It’s a problem.

&uot;You can’t get factories to look at you if you don’t have laborers,&uot; he said, adding communities throughout the country are experiencing the same problem.

What complicates the problem is it is difficult to attract younger people to town without higher-paying employment, he said.

The City Council and private leaders are continuing recruitment efforts, recently traveling to an Iowa community to lure workers. But one councilor said the latest school district projections point to a need for further efforts.

&uot;The report by the school district highlights what we are trying to do,&uot; said Councilor Ron Sorenson. &uot;We’re now going to have to double our efforts to promote economic development.

&uot;It’s a real problem and it’s going to have to be addressed by every entity in the area,&uot; Sorenson said. &uot;The City Council alone can’t make changes happen.&uot;

Sorenson said attracting people and industry here must be a collaborative effort, but the city and county governments have and continue to spar over different efforts.

Current city and county industries must also address the problem, added Albert Lea Mayor Marv Wangen.

Not only should existing employers offer higher-paying employment, but they must also take an active role in the current housing shortage, he said.

Wangen said he doesn’t believe enrollment declines are as steep as the district is projecting, but the current population can’t change the trend alone.

&uot;We need higher-paying employment. We need affordable housing and both,&uot; he said. &uot;There are so many facets to it. The city already owns 50 residential units. We’re involved in Newbury, (a future low-to-moderate-income housing complex) project.

&uot;It’s not like the city isn’t doing anything,&uot; he added. &uot;Industry needs to take a proactive role in housing.&uot;

Without affordable housing, it’s difficult to attract younger families to town, he said, joking that a former Italian dictator was successful in spawning growth by turning off electricity.

&uot;I haven’t talked to Alliant Energy about it,&uot; he said.

Cultural diverse

With other communities experiencing the same problems, Albert Lea does have an edge in attracting people here, Sparks said.

&uot;I think it will happen,&uot; he said, adding that industrial growth is spreading south from the Twin Cities along Interstate 35. &uot;It is an attractive community to live in. We need to continue to make this community as attractive as possible.&uot;

He said Albert Lea has a superior school system. Its lakes, 39 parks and trails give the city a current advantage over other communities, he added.

But he said because 20-somethings are very educated and mobile, they will live where there are the most opportunities, and Albert Lea can’t offer the same opportunities as metro areas.

It’s when they start having children that Albert Lea has something to offer these people, he said.

&uot;We can’t hit them when they’re 25,&uot; he said. &uot;We have to hit them when they’re 32. The other thing you need to understand is cultural diversity.&uot;

The fertility rates of mostly white Generation X and younger Baby boomer women is low, he said. But because the generation now attending the public school system has a larger Hispanic population, the community will see a larger Hispanic population, he said.

That’s because Hispanic women have a higher fertility rate.

In-migrations will also bring more Hispanic people.

&uot;We must make the community attractive to them, too,&uot; he said. &uot;We can’t put up barriers that say, ‘We don’t want cultural diversity.’&uot;

With an existing Hispanic population, Albert Lea does have an advantage to other communities, but he said the community can’t shut its doors to diversity.

&uot;It’s going to take a lot of leadership by the entire community,&uot; he said of attracting people here. People must also have a true understanding of what is happening, he added.