Population declines come home
McCook residents could very easily believe that life will go on unchanged, as it has over the last 50 years. The community is much the same today as it was back then. McCook's population grew slightly between 1950 and 2000 while the surrounding rural counties dropped more than 46 percent. More recently, McCook's numbers have not been so kind. Red Willow County posted the third-largest population loss in the state since the 2000 census suggesting a different community in years to come.
McCook has been largely insulated from population losses. Rural dwellers displaced either directly or indirectly by farm consolidation moved into town for job opportunities. McCook enjoyed robust growth in employment particularly in manufacturing and the service industries such as financial services, health care and food service.
Sizable shifts are occurring that paint a different picture for the near future. Mid-sized farm numbers have dwindled to the point that they no longer create a steady flow of job seekers in town. Smaller towns have emptied out of residents who are not either: retired and not likely to move, or already employed in the McCook area. The population has aged. Fewer families are of child rearing age, and they are having smaller families. Hobby farms do not maintain the numbers of people in the middle of the Midwest that they do in rural areas further east. There are simply less opportunities for off-farm income to sustain them.
There is hope! This negative trend can be slowed if not turned around. The exodus from farms shows signs of slowing as more operators approach practical limits in replacing manpower with machinery. Reductions in irrigation may drive additional consolidation in the area. Dryland farmers commonly operate two to three times the acres per man than irrigated producers do. Continued diversification away from agriculture is necessary. Modern farms do not generate economic activity on Mainstreet as in the past. Demographic changes like reductions in family size will not continue into the future at the rates they have in the past.
There is growing demand for many of the lifestyle attributes of rural America, not only for retirement, but also for young adults longing for a safer environment in which to raise a family. McCook still possesses amenities and social and cultural activities to be attractive to many such individuals. Being attractive to these folks requires attention to the creation of primary jobs that offer real economic opportunity. Retail offerings that make up part of the quality of life that these people desire and expect need to be expanded.
We need a sense of urgency in creating aggressive programs that leverage the strength of McCook's diverse economy and regional trade center status. Broad strategic initiatives are needed to stimulate business growth, recruit new residents and draw in more of our youth.
A bright future is to be expected as our heritage of leadership meets these contemporary challenges with fresh ideas and renewed commitment.
-- Nelson is executive director of the McCook Economic Development Corp.