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Another year of modest suburban growth is reviving a debate over the longer-term prospects for a once-booming ring of the metro area.

The five suburban counties that since the 1940s have always grown at least twice as fast as the two big urban counties they border — and occasionally faster — are now slowing down, collectively trailing Hennepin and Ramsey so far this decade, according to U.S. Census estimates to be released Thursday.

Ramsey County, for half a century the slowest-growing of the metro counties, is now growing as quickly as suburban neighbor Washington County. In the '90s, Washington grew eight times faster.

Anoka and Dakota counties have shown the weakest growth so far in the seven-county metro region, a position neither has come close to for several decades.

The numbers suggest that the softening of suburban growth, which began around 2005, is "not a short-run thing," said consulting demographer Tom Gillaspy.

"In 2010, people were saying, 'When we're fully recovered from the recession, we'll go right back to this house-buying thing,' " Gillaspy said. "And some of us were saying, 'We're not so sure.' We're not seeing it go back to the way it was."

For the decade so far — from 2010 to 2014 — census estimates say, longtime growth leader Scott County is running slightly ahead of neighboring Carver — 7.5 percent to 6.9 percent.

But Scott's growth is showing signs of slackening year by year, while Carver is trending upward. In the year from 2013 to 2014, Carver tops metro counties.

"We hear a lot that millennials are not as interested in buying or in moving out of the central cities," said Victoria City Manager Laurie Hokkanen. "But drive around our new neighborhoods and you'll see young families in their late 20s to early 30s who've clearly decided this is the lifestyle they want."

Although growth is not what it used to be, she said, "we're at a comfortable pace for us. We know that people move here for the small-town feel," and get edgy when growth is too rapid.

Overall, however, said Craig Helmstetter, senior research manager for the Wilder Foundation, "these latest estimates continue a trend that we've been tracking:

"The pendulum seems to be swinging from the explosive population growth that we saw in the suburbs during the '50s and '60s toward more moderate growth since the turn of the century. We have seen a bit of a mirror image in the central cities," where growth is accelerating.

Over the past three years, Cathy Bennett has been involved in dozens of discussions with suburban officials about development patterns as part of her work with the Urban Land Institute. The monthly sessions feature former Edina city administrator Gordon Hughes and a rotating panel of developers.

"In every conversation we've had," Bennett said, "probably the key theme is, 'Realistically, how are the suburban communities going to remain competitive?' — and how they need to look at things differently to be more attractive to a new generation, which includes more immigrants."

Life in the exurbs

The latest U.S. Census estimates also show flickers of life, after years of losses, in exurban areas.

St. Croix County in Wisconsin — Hudson and its environs — has the sixth-fastest rate of growth among Wisconsin counties, while Polk, to its north, showed the first slight uptick after years of big losses. On the Minnesota side, Sherburne and Wright counties have seen their strongest growth in years.

Statewide, 46 counties have seen losses so far this decade, though some were minor. Drops of 3 percent or more occurred in 17 of the 87 counties.

The latest estimates don't drill down past the county level to cities, but do report results for metro and micropolitan areas across the state.

Among metro regions, Fargo-Moorhead ranks 16th nationally so far this decade with 9.3 percent growth. The Twin Cities ranks 108th of about 400 metro areas, at 4.4 percent. Rochester's metro area has grown 3 percent, Mankato's 2 percent and Duluth is flat.

Among micropolitan areas, Williston, N.D., and Dickinson, N.D., top the nation at 43 and 26 percent, respectively, so far this decade. The top Minnesota entry is the Bemidji area, ranking 81st out of about 500, at 3 percent growth so far. Alexandria is second at 2 percent.

David Peterson • 651-925-5039