It’s a tale of two counties: one growing steadily, the other shrinking slowly.
As reported in an ongoing series about population changes in the Quad-Cities area, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show Rock Island County is losing residents. Even the county’s flagship cities, Moline and Rock Island, continue to lose residents.
Meanwhile, across the river, Scott County is growing. Since 2010, Davenport and Bettendorf have grown by about 2% and 10%, respectively.
Why should an average resident care about population loss? How does depopulation actually affect you — as a taxpayer, a consumer, a homeowner and a resident?
“Everything’s a problem, from the amount of businesses, the people shopping at our stores, the school population declining, the tax revenue we’re able to take in, and storefronts staying empty,” said East Moline resident and Rock Island County Board member Luis Moreno.
Population loss will create — or already has created — several problems: higher taxes, fewer services, fewer businesses, feeble morale and less money in the purses of homeowners.
"The resale value of your home can stagnate if there are fewer people locally willing to buy," said Christopher Merrett, a professor at Western Illinois University and director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs. "It's supply and demand."
Most worrying of all, as the situation worsens, the trends can become self-reinforcing, making it harder and harder for the Illinois side to turn the tide.
Taxes will rise or services will fall
Population loss can be reframed as something more troubling: taxpayer’s burden.
Fewer people to pay taxes means less revenue for public services, a reality that affects everyone in a community.
“The tax revenues will decline as the population declines,” Merrett said. “Consequently, every other person will have to pay slightly higher taxes.”
For local leaders, the math of population loss is straightforward: to fund the same level of service with fewer people, each person needs to pay more.
“One of the main concerns from the county’s perspective is that you are still obligated to provide the same services — a sheriff, roads, and all of that — and with fewer people, the per-person cost goes up,” said Angie Normoyle, a member of the Rock Island County Board.
There’s an alternative to tax hikes: cuts to services. But a reduction in services could sap morale and exacerbate population flight.
Numerous people interviewed for this series said that one of the reasons to live in the Illinois Quad-Cities is the relatively high quality of public services, from snow removal to garbage pickup, from firefighters to police.
“Still to this day, people remark on the high quality of services for the city of Rock Island,” said Kai Swanson, a member of the Rock Island County Board and Rock Island resident. “If you stop investing in those, they can’t stay at high levels.”
Since the 1980s when the Farm Crisis hit, the “default mentality” has been to cut services rather than raise taxes, Swanson said.
“I think that has accelerated the exodus as much as anything else,” Swanson added. “I talk to friends routinely across the river who are surprised at some of the things that we take for granted, in terms of city services living in Rock Island and Moline.”
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Old businesses will be strained
For businesses, population loss represents an existential threat. Fewer residents means fewer customers and a shrinking workforce.
The business community does not take the problem lightly.
“The current population trend is our No. 1 issue that we need to address collectively as a region,” said Paul Rumler, president and CEO of the Quad Cities Chamber. “When you talk to a business about their No. 1 issue, about what keeps them up at night, it’s finding and keeping talent.”
In Q2030: A Regional Action Plan, a far-ranging program of goals for regional growth championed by the Chamber, “slow population growth” is listed as the first challenge facing the area.
The first of six top-line goals for the plan is to have professionals between the ages of 25 and 34 make up 13.5% of the area population by 2030, according to Jack Cullen, Q2030 project manager.
Population loss has a “quite dramatic” impact on businesses, Rumler said. And not just for existing businesses, but also for new ones thinking of coming to the Quad-Cities.
Before expanding into a new community, companies often conduct research on metrics such as an area’s median household income and its residential growth.
“Businesses are investing where people are,” Rumler said. “One of the top factors that businesses look at is population. ‘Is my workforce growing?’ ‘Is there a pipeline of talent in my area?’ ”
When Costco Wholesale opened in Davenport last year, for example, many on the Illinois side grumbled. Iowa had snagged away another big-name company, the thinking went.
If population loss continues on the Illinois side, big companies might be increasingly likely to opt for Iowa.
Over time, those investment decisions can exacerbate inequities between the states, creating a feedback loop that benefits the Iowa side at the expense of the Illinois side.
Rumler emphasized a regionalism that trumps allegiance to either state or any individual municipality. The Chamber wants businesses to come to the Quad-Cities, period, he said.
“We don’t tell businesses to go to Iowa or Illinois,” he said. “Companies want to be in the place that’s best for them. Often they don’t care if it’s Iowa or Illinois.”
Why the divergence?
Still, despite efforts to tether the sides of the river into one successful region, the two halves of the Quad-Cities are slowly splintering.
Why is Rock Island County shrinking, while Scott County grows?
The next installment of this series will examine the reasons that explain why the region is losing people, as well as why Scott County is growing while Rock Island County shrinks.