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University of Iowa News Release


May 31, 2011

County seats in Iowa generally perform better than their counties in population

County seat towns in Iowa tended to perform better than their counties over the last decade in population growth, according to a University of Iowa analysis of last year's U.S. census.

Jeff Schott, director of the Institute of Public Affairs, said that in counties that lost population between 2000 and 2010, the county seat tended to lose residents at a slower rate, or even grow.

And in counties that gained population, the seats tended to grow at an even faster clip.

For instance, while Bremer County grew 4 percent, county seat Waverly jumped by more than 10 percent. And while Cerro Gordo County fell by 5 percent, Mason City lost only 3.7 percent of its population.

"On the surface, you'd think that county seat towns should mirror the growth of the counties in which they're located, but that's not always the case," Schott said.

He said that 66 counties lost population while 33 gained population. Of the seat towns, 37 gained population and 61 lost. Schott said that county seats have a built-in advantage economically because they attract business as the government and law enforcement centers. They also tend to be economic and financial centers for their counties.

He said the 2010 census data also shows that many of them have become destinations for people who are moving from smaller towns in their county to be closer to services they can find only in county seats. This is especially true of senior citizens, who need health care and social services that county seats offer but other towns don't.

Other examples include Spirit Lake, where a 13.7 percent growth rate eclipsed Dickinson County's 1.5 percent growth: Ames, with a 16.2 percent growth that outpaced Story County's 12 percent growth; and Sac City, where a 6.3 percent loss in population was better than Sac County's 10.2 percent loss.

The trend wasn't universal, however, as 33 county seat towns performed more poorly than their counties. For instance, Ringgold County lost 6.2 percent of its population while Mount Ayr fell by 7.2 percent. And Fremont County fell by 7 percent while Sidney dropped by 12.5 percent.

Schott said many of the towns that didn't perform as well as their counties are located in urbanized areas where the seat anchors the growth of the surrounding area. For instance, while Des Moines grew by 2.4 percent, it anchors a Polk County that jumped more than 15 percent. Similarly, Johnson County's population increased by 18 percent, but Iowa City's increase was only 9.1 percent.

In a statistical quirk, three county seats and counties had the same rate of change in population: Benton County and Vinton gained 3 percent, Warren County and Indianola grew 13.7 percent and Henry County and Mount Pleasant lost 1 percent.

Dallas County grew a whopping 62 percent, one of the fastest growth rates of any county in the United States. But its seat of Adel grew by only 7.2 percent, in part because most of the county's development was in its eastern sections near Polk County, while Adel was just outside that boom ring.

Some county seats also managed to grow despite their counties losing population. While Buena Vista County lost .7 percent, Storm Lake grew by 5.2 percent. And while Hancock County dropped by 6.3 percent, Garner jumped 7.1 percent.

Schott pointed out that Lee County is a special case, as it has two county seats—Fort Madison and Keokuk. The county fell by 8.5 percent, Fort Madison dropped by 3.1 percent and Keokuk jumped 5.7 percent.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Jeff Schott, Institute of Public Affairs, 319-335-7586,; Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell),