By Tim Krohn
The Free Press
While the great recession knocked the wind out of every city's economic growth, the greater Mankato area fared far better in the past decade than virtually anyone else in the state.
The Mankato-North Mankato Metropolitan Statistical Area (all of Blue Earth and Nicollet counties) saw job growth of 7.5 percent from 2002 to 2012. Other than St. Cloud, which had a 6.1 percent job growth, other metro areas and the state as a whole had job growth of less than 2 percent and Duluth lost jobs during the past decade.
On the flip side, the Mankato region also has had the lowest annual unemployment rate of all metro areas in the state since 1998.
"These numbers tell me something is going on here," said Brent Pearson, regional analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, based in Mankato.
Pearson just finished research for an article he's writing about the region's unemployment history and said he saw some interesting trends while digging deeper into job numbers.
Not so surprisingly, he saw that the unemployment rate dropped in November as holiday shopping kicked in and then rose in the months of January. The rates generally drop again in about May and rose in July and August.
That, he said, is due to the large college student workforce that is available certain times of the year for shorter-term, flexible hiring in the retail and food service sectors. But while the retail and food industry has always been known as strong in the area, Pearson found a lot of other job sectors were also very healthy.
"If you look at the industry mix we have, there are a lot of areas that are strong. Manufacturing, retail, education, health care and social services, and food services are the highest," Pearson said.
But areas such as wholesale, transportation, professional services, administration and other things are all strong, too."
That diversity, he said, is what's behind the stronger job numbers and lower unemployment rates in the region.
"If you talk to any economist, they'll say that if you want a strong, healthy economy, you don't want all your eggs in one basket."
Mankato City Manager Pat Hentges said he believes the diversity has been helped greatly in recent years by the strength in health care and agriculture.
"The overall factor, I think, is in the medical industry. That had a significant, significant impact. When you have stable, higher-paying medical jobs, that drives a lot in the service and retail sectors," Hentges said.
"And the rising ag economy helped. Farmers buy new pickups and things, that helps."
While growth numbers are strong, the region is still a baby when it comes to measuring it against other Metropolitan Statistical Areas in the state and nation. MSAs are a federal designation that, in effect, say a region has the population and other amenities to be officially labeled a metropolitan area.
Mankato-North Mankato became an MSA in 2008. Of the 366 MSAs in the country, Mankato's is 348 in population. And it has about half the population of St. Cloud, Rochester and Duluth.
"We're just beginning to make that emergence from a micropolitan area to a metropolitan area," Pearson said.
Numerous measurements are used to compare MSAs. In some areas, the Mankato region doesn't fare so well. It's low on the list of public transportation infrastructure, for example. Pearson said things like that generally improve with growth as a region hits a certain critical mass.
But steady population and job growth bode well, he said.
"We're seeing Mankato grow up."