Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Truth Hurts

James Lileks linked to a Minneapolis Star-Tribune article reporting how the author of a National Geographic feature which gave a generally bleak picture of North Dakota reacted to criticism.

"Get over it," writer Charles Bowden told KFYR-TV in Bismarck, in an interview following a speech at Bismarck State College on Tuesday.

Bowden added that North Dakotans would have to be "perfect fools [to be offended] since I said the state is lovely, and one of the nicest places in the country to visit.

"I mean, I can't deal with the willfully dishonest and illiterate."

I read that article, and while the tone was very downbeat, it was pretty much accurate. Sometimes it takes an outside observer to point out bad news.

South Dakota has similar conditions; a few growing cities with depopulation and dying towns elsewhere. In the course of a conversation with my wife the other night I got out the Rand McNally and noticed how many counties here have one dominant city/town with the rest of the population scattered over a wide area. Sometimes it's because the city is relatively large and the county small in area (Sioux Falls/Minnehaha, Watertown/Codington). In other cases (Murdo with 612 of Jones County's 1067 people, Fort Pierre with 1991 of Stanley County's 2815) there just aren't any other towns.

Another way to show the problem is to look at the drop off in city size.

10 largest cities (2005 est.): Sioux Falls, 139,517; Rapid City, 62,167; Aberdeen, 24,098; Watertown, 20,265; Brookings, 18,715; Mitchell, 14,696; Pierre, 14,052; Yankton, 13,716; Huron, 11,086; Vermillion, 9,964 (from

Those ten have 41% of the state's population. It's also worth noting that Sioux Falls spillover into northern Lincoln County has made it the third most populous in the state, yet it's next-largest city has 3110 people.

The accompanying problems create their own momentum. Widespread populations make schools and other services expensive and difficult to maintain, which causes more people to move,which makes things worse, etc. The State government makes some accommodations for small/sparse school districts, but the small schools say it's not enough and the bigger areas don't like forking over tax dollars to fund other schools. It really is hard to see how this can change barring some large influx of people (who also will tend to go to the larger areas anyway).

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