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This map shows a total population of 27,489 for the city of Bemidji and its six adjacent townships. The 204 residents of the city of Wilton also are included in the total.

What is Bemidj's 'real' population? Census shows 27,489 for Bemidji, Wilton and six adjacent townships

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Dennis Zeto is the chairman of the fastest-growing Beltrami County township, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Eckles Township, northwest of Bemidji, grew by more than 46 percent in the last 10 years.

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Zeto himself lives outside of the official Bemidji city limits.

But he still considers himself a Bemidjian.

And he is not alone.

Bemidji's population topped 13,000 for the first time, according to Census numbers. Official 2010 counts registered a total population of 13,431 for the city.

But who are Bemidjians? How do you define the Bemidji community? Plenty of area township residents consider Bemidji their home, even if they do not live within the city's borders.

So how can you tally population for the Bemidji area?

It is a question that several regional agencies have struggled with throughout the years.

Tim Flathers, community development director with the Headwaters Regional Development Commission, said he and Larry Young, former executive director of the Joint Economic Development Commission, used to often discuss this conundrum.

What is the market area for Bemidji? And are trade areas different for a gallon of milk versus regional health care?

"Different geographies make sense for different issues," Flathers said.

The Pioneer reviewed the area and focused on two rings of properties surrounding the city limits - suburbs if you will - to determine regional populations.

The first ring includes the cities of Bemidji and Wilton and the six Beltrami County townships (Eckles, Northern, Turtle River, Grant Valley, Bemidji and Frohn) that encircle the city of Bemidji.

That area has a total population of 27,489, up from 24,043 in 2000. The population has grown by 14.3 percent in the last 10 years.

The Pioneer defined the greater Bemidji area by looking at areas in three counties. The area includes seven cities, 26 Beltrami County townships, two Cass County townships and eight Hubbard County townships.

The total population of this area, according to the Census, is 44,124, an increase from 39,272 in 2000, which equates to a 12.4 percent growth rate.

Other possibilities for calculating regional populations could be found via the Bemidji School District or Greater Bemidji Area Joint Planning Board.

The school district, which includes parts of Beltrami and Hubbard counties, reported in the 2010 Census a total population of 36,502.

The JPB, which services the city of Bemidji and Bemidji and Northern townships, has a total population of 21,222, up from 18,868 in 2000 for a growth rate of 12.5 percent.

Flathers noted that he has worked on projects and issues throughout the area and found residents who do not know what specific township they live in or whether they are within the city limits. He, himself, was a new resident years ago and did not realize he lived in Turtle Lake Township and not Turtle River Township until later on.

"Realistically, does it matter?" he said. "Probably not. People tend to think of themselves as Bemidji people whether they live within the city limits or not."

Most of the greater Bemidji area, as defined by the Pioneer, has experienced growth in the last 10 years. Six of the cities - Bemidji, Blackduck, Solway, Tenstrike, Turtle River and Wilton - had positive growth. The only city that did not was Cass Lake, whose population fell by more than 10 percent.

Of the townships, 27 grew, eight did not and one - Jones Township in southwestern Beltrami County - remained exactly even.

The fastest-growing township in the whole area was actually Lake Hattie Township in northern Hubbard County. Lake Hattie went from a population of 130 to 202, a growth rate of more than 55 percent.

Next would be Wilkinson Township in Cass County. That township grew from 270 people to 401, a rate of 48.5 percent.

Eckles was third, followed by Grant Valley Township, directly to its south. Grant Valley grew from 1,450 to 2,020 for a rate of 40 percent.

Zeto, from Eckles Township, said it did not surprise him at all that his township was the fastest-growing in Beltrami County.

"We have the last areas available to be developed in - if you want to call it that - the Bemidji metropolitan area," he said.

The growth in Eckles Township began roughly five years ago.

Zeto recalled how, at a special meeting 10 years ago, Eckles Township residents voted 99-3 against the idea of addressing land use and planning.

Now, as housing subdivisions have been platted and developed, some residents are asking the town board to again consider implementing land use rules beyond those set for Beltrami County.

"I don't think anybody is ever prepared for the growth when it comes," Zeto said. "It's a real challenge for us, because, up until three or four years ago, we were basically an agricultural community."

Still, the town board has adapted to its changing demographics. The size of its board increase to five members with hopes of getting a better cross-representation of its residents.

The major benefit of the growth, Zeto noted, is that the township is bringing in more taxes, but individual property owners are paying less in taxes.

The Hubbard County townships south of Bemidji are mostly growing as well. Immediately south is Helga Township, which increased from 436 residents to 555, a rate of 26.3 percent. Further south is Guthrie Township, which is seeing a similar growth rate of 27.3 percent.

That news did not surprise Cal Johannsen, who is in his ninth year of representing District 5 on the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners.

He said he would have expected to see growth in the areas near Bemidji.

He was, however, surprised to hear that that Lake Hattie Township was growing as sharply as it is, according to Census figures.

Johannsen lives in Lake George Township, which is just outside of the area the Pioneer focused on.

Where does he tell others he is from, if they ask?

"I tell them Lake George," he said.

Johannsen said he is nine miles from Itasca State Park, so he has used the Mississippi Headwaters, too, as a reference point. Otherwise, he will tell people Lake George is halfway between Bemidji and Park Rapids.

He guessed that about half of the people near him call Bemidji their home area and the other half reference Park Rapids.

"It just depends on their preferences," Johannsen said.

City staff reported that any annexation that might have occurred from the townships into the city limits in the last 10 years would have been negligible.

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