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Report: Wadena County low in violent crime

WADENA - Wadena County has the lowest violent crime rate in Region Five, according to a report recently released by the Region Five Development Commission.

A declining and aging population, high unemployment rates and improving educational attainment and poverty rates were among the report's other findings. Cheryal Lee Hills, executive director of Region Five, presented the report to commissioners in October.

Wadena County's violent crime rate is very low, Hills said. In 2006 the county's violent crime rate was seven per 10,000 population, compared to 31 per 10,000 in Minnesota.

It's considerably lower than the state and the nation, she said. Wadena County's violent crime rate experienced a 70 percent decrease from 2000 to 2006 compared to an 11 percent increase for Minnesota during the same time period.

"The state has increased in violent crimes while you've decreased," Hills emphasized.

She doesn't know how Wadena County is different from other counties in the region, but she thinks it would be interesting for those counties to examine what's happening here, she said. Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties comprise Region Five.

"There's definitely something different that's happening in this county," she said.

Hills pointed out that a low violent crime rate is a good selling point for the county. It is an important issue for both young families and retirees when deciding where they want to live, she said. Businesses are also attracted to areas with low violent crime rates.

The total crime rate in 2006 was 68 per 10,000 in Wadena County compared to 339 per 10,000 for Minnesota.

"You've got some ... great assets here," Hills said. "I think we should try and focus on those."

Hills also pointed out report findings about improvements in educational attainment and poverty levels.

In Wadena County 20.5 percent of the population 25 years and older had no high school diploma in 2000. The overall Minnesota rate was 12.1 percent.

"On the face it could sound pretty negative," Hills said. "But the good news is that Wadena County is improving your educational attainment, so that's positive."

1980s figures showed that 42.2 percent had no diploma.

There are also fewer people living in poverty in recent years, she said. The overall poverty rate was 11.9 percent in 2003, which was a marked improvement over 1989 when the poverty rate was 21.8 percent. Wadena County has a higher poverty rate than the state, but is below national rates, Hills said.

Housing values increased in the county, which is good for the tax base, Hills said. The median price of a home in January 2000 was $47,820, which increased by 64.7 percent to $78,750 by September of 2005.

Hills also highlighted several negative trends in Wadena County.

"Your county is ... rapidly becoming an older county in terms of population in comparison to even our own region," she said.

The median age in Wadena County was 41.5 in 2007, compared to 38.1 for the state and 36.6 for the nation.

The aging population is also declining, according to the report. Wadena County's population declined from 13,713 in 2000 to an estimated 13,382 in 2007, a loss of 331 residents.

The county's population has gone up and down considerably since 1970, Hills said, but there has been a slow decrease over a period of time.

"A lot of our rural community are experiencing the same thing," she said.

Per capita income has increased since 1970, but lags behind state and national averages in an ever-widening gap, according to the report. Wadena County's per capita income in 2006, when adjusted for inflation, was $25,736, compared to $39,966 in Minnesota.

Hills said the county's aging population may be a contributing factor to why wages are lower. Senior citizens typically make less than a middle-aged person, she said.

The report was from the 2008 annual update of Region Five's 2005-2010 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. The report is available online at The CEDS allows Region Five to be a designated regional economic development authority so it can have access to federal dollars for projects in the region, Hills said.

The projects are prioritized by a group of people from all five counties. A Wadena County project on the highest priority projects list is the construction of a biomass ethanol plant. The estimated project cost is $20 million. The completion of a four-lane construction for U.S. Highway 10 through the city of Wadena is another identified regional project.

However, the actual construction of the Highway 10 project will probably never be funded by any federal Economic Development Administration dollars, Hills said. Any additional feasibility studies would be an example of what Region Five could spend EDA money on.

Commissioner Bill Stearns thanked Hills for improvements in Region Five's focus in the past couple of years.

"You've honed the focus down to what you really can support [for] the counties and the cities and economic development people," he said.