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ARCHIVED  December 1, 1996

Plains bounce back

Morgan, Logan counties reclaim population base, economies.

In fairy tales, princes and knights always slay the dragon, rescue the princess and live happily ever after. But real life doesn’t always mimic those happy endings.

Morgan and Logan counties did find a way to kill the fire-breathing beast, though, and are now watching their kingdoms flourish.
The major driving force of our heroes’ recovery is population growth. Morgan and Logan counties were hit hard by the recession in the early 1980s, and many people fled the rural lifestyle of Northeast Colorado.
But now things seem to be taking a turn for the better. Population in both counties has bounced back to pre-recession numbers. Morgan County saw a more than 700-resident drop in its population from 22,513 in 1980 to 21,939 in 1990. In Logan, a similar impact was felt in that decade, with numbers falling from 19,800 to 17,567.
The latest figures on the populace on the plains show the numbers rising, though. The dwindling numbers in Logan have given way to growth, jumping to a current estimate of 18,401. Morgan County has shown the same resiliency, with 25,890 residents in 1995.
“We saw a big population decline in the 1980s,” said Patti Lewis, executive director of the Morgan County Economic Development Corp. “Agriculture really took a dive in the fields. Now, Morgan County is experiencing a rebirth. We’re encouraging and exploring a diversification of our industry. Instead of peaks and valleys, we’d like to be able to maintain steady growth.”
Experts also predict that the plains’ population boom will last well into the future.
“It took the region 10 years to recover from the recession,” said Larry Worth, director of the Northeast Colorado Association of Local Governments. “We’re just now getting to the point of recovery. The state demographer’s office continues to project growth for the entire region. It’s poised for a larger expansion of population and jobs in the next two decades.”
Employment opportunities have helped fuel this newfound growth. Primarily known for agriculture, these eastern Colorado counties have flourished with the influx of manufacturing, information technology and retail chains.
Although agriculture is still king, other industries have earned their way into the hearts and pocketbooks of Morgan and Logan counties.
Hand in hand with the region’s agrarian nature is the success of agricultural byproduct industries such as the Excel beef plants. In Morgan, Excel employs more than 1,900 employees, 24 hours a day. The average employee’s wages grow from $8.45 an hour starting pay to an average of $9.25.
The Logan County Excel plant employs 400 workers, paying an average of $8.97.
Other agribusiness employers in Morgan County are Leprino Foods and Western Sugar Co. Leprino has 200 workers at its cheese processing plant in Fort Morgan, for an average hourly wage of $10.15. Western Sugar has a staff of 98 employees and pays at about $14 an hour.
In Logan, agriculture offshoots such as the Trinidad Bean Elevator, 65 employees, and Cargill/Far Better Feed, 20 employees, also take advantage of the region’s disposition toward farming and ranching.
Service, of the civil, customer, and health-care varieties, has also come to mean money in Logan County. Sterling Regional Medical Center is the largest employer next to Excel, with 370 workers, followed by the Re-1 School District (367), Wal-Mart (354) and Sykes Enterprises, an information-technology company (325).
In Morgan County, the Re-3 School District comes in second to Excel with 526 employees. Morgan County (294), Colorado Plains Medical Center and Leprino, which tied for fourth with 200 workers, round out the top four.
A higher per capita income has come along with the diversification of the economy. According to the state demographer’s office, Morgan County’s per capita income was $12,505 in 1986. That figure rose to $18,636 by 1994.
Morgan has fared better in terms of unemployment than its neighbor. In September, the Colorado Department of Labor pegged Morgan’s unemployment at 3.1 percent, coming in under the state average of 3.5 percent. Logan’s unemployment totalled 4.0 percent in September.
Good geography has also helped spark the rejuvenation. The key to success in both of these rural counties is location.
Morgan County is positioned on the Interstate 76 corridor and provides easy access to Denver International Airport and shopping across the Front Range.
“The driving force behind our growth is geographic location,” Lewis said. “People coming into Colorado want quality of life, open space, low crime, good education, good health care. Morgan County can provide that and still be just a 60- to 90 minute drive to the Front Range.”
Lewis also points out the numerous opportunities unfolding with the shift from Stapleton International Airport to DIA. She said the county is just beginning to grasp the impact of the location, which puts towns such as Wiggins and Fort Morgan within an hour-or-so drive of the airport.
Because of that close proximity, Lewis expects the lodging industry to grow greatly in the near future.
Location is also critical to the economic health of Logan County.
“I think the reason our economy is thriving is because we are the hub of Northeast Colorado and Southwest Nebraska,” said Logan County Chamber of Commerce president Mike Lauer.
Being at the hub of it all has made Logan a prime spot for retailers. Wal-Mart is the latest store to put down roots in Logan, with a superstore in Sterling, which opened last year.
“I believe Wal-Mart has attracted a large number of people,” Lauer said, adding that a stroll through the superstore parking lot often yields more Nebraska license plates than it does Colorado tags.
“It adds to our overall economy, by simply adding to the number of people who visit,” Lauer added.
So what looms on the horizon? Imprisonment. The Colorado Department of Corrections is building a 2,500-bed prison in Sterling. The new facility will employ 800 to 1,000 workers who will put more pop into Logan County’s pocket.
Logan’s neighbors may also benefit from the prison’s location, because employees may live within a 55-minute radius of the facility.
“A 55-minute response time from home to work means employees can live as far as Wiggins or Julesburg and be within the radius, especially with the 75-mph speed limit,” Worth said. “The prison facility becomes a magnet for growth and development through out the region.”
The rejuvenation does have some side effects, though. Housing markets are very tight in both Logan and Morgan counties. Both locales offer very little in terms of rental housing. Homes for ownership are a little more plentiful. But if there is another influx of residents, the existing market may offer no shelter for them.
One remedy being experimented with is construction. Both counties have seen an increase in the number of building permits issued, and experts hope that the contractors will be poised with hammer in hand for the next population wave.
Morgan and Logan counties are also buffing up their local government armor to ready for the growth attack. County commissioners are crusading for smart, well-planned growth to ensure that infrastructures can accommodate all who wish to join the kingdom.
Regardless, both regions are thriving after slaying the mighty recession dragon.
ÿ

Morgan, Logan counties reclaim population base, economies.

In fairy tales, princes and knights always slay the dragon, rescue the princess and live happily ever after. But real life doesn’t always mimic those happy endings.

Morgan and Logan counties did find a way to kill the fire-breathing beast, though, and are now watching their kingdoms flourish.
The major driving force of our heroes’ recovery is population growth. Morgan and Logan counties were hit hard by the recession in the early 1980s, and many people fled the rural lifestyle of Northeast Colorado.
But now things seem to be taking a turn…

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