Despite Rural Population Trend Benton County Holds Steady

Judy Kramer
County Reporter
USDA reported in the 2017 edition of Rural America at a Glance, that: “Overall, the rural population is shrinking for the first time on record, due to several factors, including long-term outmigration of young adults, fewer births, increased mortality among working-age adults, and an aging population.”
America’s land area is 72 percent rural with 46 million residents, down from 46.2 million in 2015.
Numbers matter. Based on official U.S. Census data collected every ten years, the federal government allocates approximately $650 billion per year in funding, grants and other support to states and counties for schools, hospitals, roads, and public works programs. 
Missouri’s Budget and Planning Division of the Office of Administration (MOA) uses the same U.S. Census data to make 30-year projections, in 5-year increments, for each of the 114 counties.  In addition, information that the Census breaks down by sex, age, race and other factors is used by “planners, designers, policymakers, grant writers, and others interested in Missouri’s future population trends.”
The Census Bureau does not define “rural,” but whatever is not “urban” is rural by default. “Urban” can refer to ‘Urban Areas’ with populations at or above 50,000; or to ‘Urban Clusters’ of cities with populations of at least 2,500 that, combined with adjoining areas, have a total population up to 50,000.
Kristi Pfleiderer, executive director of Kaysinger Basin Regional Planning Commission, shared information on population changes in Benton County between 2000 and 2010:
•Overall population increased by 1,876 or nearly 11 percent from 17,180 to 19,056. 
•New residents, mostly 50+ years old, were among 1,562 who moved to the county but outside the city limits of Cole Camp, Lincoln or Warsaw.
•City of Cole Camp population increased by 93, or 9 percent from 1,028 to 1,121; the highest increase in the 20-50 age group.
•City of Lincoln population increased by 164, or 16 percent, from 1,026 to 1,190; among all age groups.
•City of Warsaw population increased by 57, or 3 percent, from 2,070 to 2,127; the highest increase in the 20-50 age group.
Missouri’s formula to project population trends applies the net results of births and deaths, combined with net results of in- and out-migration. Benton County projection for 2020 is 19,934.  
Current county population is 18,854 (per; the next official census will be taken in April 2020. More than 29 percent of Benton County’s population today is 65 or older. Young people, under age 18, represent about 17 percent.  MOA estimates Benton County population in 2030 will be 20,228, with 48 percent or 9,652 between 65 - 85, or older; 15 percent between 0 - 19 years old. 
An uptrend in deaths of working age adults between 25-29, also between 20–24 and 30–54, contributes to population decline nationwide. Although mortality rates declined in rural areas overall, deaths in these age groups increased by 20 percent in 1999-2001 and 2013-2015. USDA attributes the trend to rising prescription drug abuse, especially opioids, and a rise in heroin-overdose deaths. 
On a more positive note, an important distinction gives hope to some rural communities.  USDA’s 2017 report said, “This first-ever period of overall nonmetro population loss may be short-lived… especially in tourism and recreation destinations.” Missouri’s report agreed that its population is shifting to urban areas, and to tourist and recreation destinations in the state. 
The description fits Benton County. A growing number of tourists every year come to enjoy the lakes and marinas, the dam and reservoir, fish hatchery, bike and hiking trails, a state park, golf courses and museums.  In addition, three active chambers of commerce as well as local organizations sponsor numerous and special events that draw participants from near and far. 
“As a rural community, we share the same challenges as other rural communities in Missouri,” Randy Pogue, Warsaw city administrator said. “Our benefit is our location in the state and the geographic features we have; our outdoor environment and the many ways to enjoy it is a marketing tool that many rural communities do not have.”
Lynette Stokes, executive director of Benton County Tourism and Recreation (BCTR), foresees a bright future. Partnerships with the county, the cities of Cole Camp, Lincoln and Warsaw and the chambers of commerce among other organizations, support BCTR’s efforts by contributing funds and resources to promote tourism in the area. 
The Missouri Division of Tourism reported a 17 percent growth in tourism-related employment, with Benton County expenditures reaching nearly $16.5 million in FY16, a 19 percent increase from FY10.  The county commissioners authorized BCTR to manage the annual proceeds from guest tax revenues, $49,899 collected in 2017, an increase of 16 percent from 2014.  
BCTR’s 2018 agenda focuses on broader marketing. “We will be sponsoring a major fishing tournament with national media coverage, a media/press tour, “and utilizing publications and other tourism-related organizations that target tourism.”
A billboard on Hwy 7 will promote Warsaw events, and billboards on Hwy 65 will promote Lincoln and Cole Camp events.  A year-long digital billboard on Hwy 50 (Sedalia) will promote county events and attractions.
 “We will increase BCTR’s social media presence and target demographics on Google which may not otherwise find us,” Stokes added. “We are planning a new marketing video and new marketing brochure, information for the Missouri Life Biking/Trails publication, literature distribution to the major Welcome Centers throughout Missouri, and marketing at out-of-state sports shows, to name a few,” she said.  
A Social and Economic Profile by University of Missouri Extension estimates 5.8 percent growth in 2020, and 7.3 percent by 2030. MU Community Development Specialist in the Warsaw office, Connie Mefford, works with individuals and organizations in a variety of programs for rural development, including “Economic Development through Tourism.”
Amenities that attract tourists should also benefit long-term residents by providing a positive environment for daily living.  However, creating only seasonal service jobs that do not pay enough to support a reasonable standard of living is a potential pitfall of tourist-based economies. Rural communities without employment opportunities lose population because young people move to metropolitan areas to find jobs to provide sufficient income for their growing families. 
Warsaw’s waterfront and harbor contribute to the enjoyment and well-being of residents countywide while providing a pleasant experience for tourists, some of whom decide to move to the county permanently. 
Pogue said Warsaw’s focus is shifting from waterfront to roadway projects. Trails efforts will continue at a slower pace while focusing more on parking improvements enhance local recreational opportunities. Parts of town are underused for residential development, he said. Improvements already made, and others planned or in the works should assist local realtors and developers to market the area. 
“All of Main Street has a great potential for commercial development,” Pogue said. “We are at the threshold of attracting new visitors and potential new residents; this will also open up the opportunity for more businesses.”
Business license applications are positive indicators, for Cole Camp with 100 licenses issued in 2017, and for Lincoln, where 58 business licenses in 2017 were an increase over the previous year. Most of Warsaw’s 313 licenses are held by businesses physically located in the city. Median residential property values rose also, by 5.5 percent.
Efforts to recruit major manufacturers and retailers for creating jobs is important and ongoing. In Warsaw, a new Casey’s General Store is under construction at the intersection of Commercial Street and Truman Dam Access Road, a sign that the developers have confidence in the area’s economy, and of job opportunities to come.
Yet, there are additional ways to revitalize a community and its economy that brings together local government and private citizens, including retirees and the unemployed, to work toward a mutual goal. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Smart Growth initiative encourages rural communities to follow the example of others of similar size, by taking the following steps:
•Identify and build on existing assets.
•Engage all members of the community to plan the future.
•Take advantage of outside funding.
•Create incentives for redevelopment, and encourage investment in the community.
•Encourage cooperation within the community and across the region.
•Support a clean and healthy environment.
Along with the county’s ‘existing assets’ already mentioned, Cole Camp has a rich and distinctive German heritage to draw on. Additionally, recently it became the first “Monarch City USA” to be designated by the organization established in Maple Valley, WA in 2015 whose motto is: “We help the monarch butterfly recover, city by city. Wings up!”  A Monarch Festival at a time in the future would attract swarms of lepidopterists and butterfly enthusiasts to the area.
Lincoln is home to the Mozarkite Society of Lincoln - Rock and Gem Show that held its 58th annual event last September, drawing rock hounds from all over the Midwest. Every year vendors sell or trade their gems, minerals and jewelry, including semi-precious Mozarkite, the Missouri state stone found in abundance in and around Lincoln. Visitors can also go on digs for their own stones at sites nearby.
Events like these, along with Warsaw’s Jubilee Days and Heritage Days and many others throughout the county, when advertised on one of the billboards that BCTR plans to set up, will draw even more attention than usual, and bring greater returns to the county and its residents. 
Adding variety to the lives of residents, bringing people together for a good cause, and attracting a steady stream of visitors not only boosts tax revenues and the local economy, but keeps Benton County growing and thriving.