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Can we reverse our population decline?

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Sikeston City Council held a brief "brainstorming" session a week ago to examine the 2010 census for our community. It was evident - I believe - for those in attendance that there are no easy solutions to reverse a 30-year steady decline in the city's population.

The issue of revitalizing a community is complex and frustrating. Put simply, there are no easy fixes. And any plan that might stand a chance at success is long-range at best.

Sikeston was on a roll in the early 1970s with the opening of the Kingsway Plaza Mall. Cape Girardeau - that growing metropolis to our north - had yet to open West Park Mall and Sikeston suddenly began a shopping hub.

At the same time, our employment base was expanding. There were jobs available, decent housing, a still-growing school system and an expanding hospital. All of those factors combined to provide a heyday of sorts for our community.

But something happened that decade. And it's hard to pinpoint the exact cause - if indeed there was one single cause.

Starting with the 1980 census, Sikeston has consistently lost population. Each 10-year census since then has followed the same gradual decline. Our overall population dropped around 600 residents the past 10 years; about 800 the decade earlier.

But inside those numbers are even more concerns. The population we have gained over the past 30 years has been lower-income residents. That has resulted in a equally steady decline in our median income in comparison to state or national averages.

And today, we are a relatively poor community by comparison.

We have over 4,000 Sikeston residents receiving food stamps. In our school system, two-thirds of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The overwhelming majority of hospital patients at our local hospital are on government insurance of some form as opposed to private pay insurance through an employer. The local demand for government assistance of some form or another is at a record high.

These are problems that don't doom a city but they do bring challenges. And the solution to improve our community is far from simple and even more distant from a quick fix.

I don't think there's been an honest discussion on the state of our community and the way to bring added productive residents here. And if and when those honest discussions are convened, it will be a sobering time of reflection. The time for finger-pointing is long gone. Now we need to address those programs and policies that will attract people to Sikeston and truly revitalize this community.

My concern - and I voiced this to the City Council - is that Sikeston is almost alone in the category of declining population in our area. Other communities in our peer category are showing consistent - though small - increases in population.

That to me is the most glaring problem. Perhaps others are doing something better than we are. And if so, we need to learn from their example.

I am far from alone in this concern. A group of city and business leaders recently traveled to a community that is growing by leaps and bounds in an attempt to learn from their experiences. Perhaps that is a good starting point.

We need a starting point and we need some honest assessment. Until you know the full depth of the issue, you can never formulate a plan for change.



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Michael Jensen
Michael Jensen