The changing face of Washington
A group of about 15 people gathered in the Washington Public Library Wednesday night to listen to a member of Main Street Iowa talk about the city’s changing demographics and economy.
Jim Thompson of Main Street Iowa spoke about the “Consumer Profile of the Washington Trade Area.” He opened the talk by going over statistics taken from the 2010 census. The city of Washington added 219 residents from 2000 to 2010, according to the census. That was an increase of 3 percent from 7,047 to 7,266.
Thompson said that Washington’s population growth told an interesting tale about the changing ethnic makeup of the town and perhaps foretold the town’s future. Washington is overwhelmingly Caucasian. The number Thompson cited was 92.5 percent white. However, of the 219 new residents, 210 of them are from minority ethnicities.
The data Thompson has collected on Washington suggest there are about 760 Hispanics in the city, which would be just over 10 percent of the population. The census shows the number to be much lower at 540 Hispanics. He said getting a firm number on a town’s ethnic makeup can be difficult since it’s based on self-identification and thus depends on the attitudes of survey respondents.
Thompson highlighted Washington’s main economic strengths and weaknesses in the rest of his talk. There were a few statistics about the town that “jumped off the page” to him. One was the high number of people who have paid off their mortgage. Of all homeowners, 36 percent have no outstanding mortgage payments.
“That is not normal,” Thompson said.
Washington residents tend not to move around, Thompson said. He said the town’s residents tend to fix up their current home rather than buy or build a new one.
“A lot of people here are living in the house they grew up in,” he said.
Deb Schlegel, who attended the meeting, said she knows quite a few people in town who could afford to live in a bigger house but chose not to. She said part of the problem is that it’s difficult for first-time home buyers to get a loan.
Thompson said Washington’s median household income was $49,800 in 2010, very nearly equal to the state average of $50,300. The town’s median household income has more than doubled in the past 20 years. In 2000 it was $36,000 and in 1990 it was $24,600.
The town’s projected median income for 2015 is just over $55,000.
“That is substantial,” Thompson said.
The city’s work force was broken down into three general classifications: white collar, blue collar and service. More than half the population (56 percent) work in white collar jobs, while blue collar occupations make up 25 percent and service jobs make up 19 percent.
Talk of the housing market took up a fair amount of time Wednesday night. Thompson said that 91.8 percent of the homes in the city are occupied, leaving 8.2 percent vacant. While the percentage of vacant homes is below the state average of 8.6 percent, Thompson said the city should find out how many of those 266 vacant homes can be lived in, and how many must be torn down.
Uninhabitable homes are a liability to the city, he said. They are not producing tax revenue and they’re a nuisance to the neighbors. While the house may be a liability, the land it sits on may be an asset. However, Thompson noted that there are no housing programs at any level that encourage demolition.
Ed Raber, director of the Washington Economic Development Group and who was also in attendance, said the housing statistics Thompson mentioned are from 2010 and that the housing market is actually much better now, two years later. He said some of the vacancies can be explained by old people moving into nursing homes while maintaining possession of their houses, which they no longer live in but do not need to sell since their mortgage is paid off.
Thompson said that the grocery stores in town are doing well financially and are among the city’s best economic sectors.
He said the city has quality automobile dealerships, although there are not enough of them to meet the demand. He said Washington is losing a lot of auto sales to other cities.
Another thing Thompson talked about was commuting to work. One-quarter of the town drives 20 minutes or more one-way to work. The average commute for a Washington resident is about 18 minutes.
Raber said that Washington is sometimes referred to as a “bedroom community” although he didn’t think that characterization was quite right since many people come to Washington for work and a large number of the city’s residents stay in town to work.
Other demographic data Thompson mentioned included the city’s median age, which is 42.1 years. Forty-seven percent of the city is male.
The educational attainment of the city is comparable to state averages, which are higher than national averages. Thompson said he expected Washington to have more college graduates given its close proximity to the University of Iowa.
“Iowa City is not just a place to work or shop,” he said. “It’s also a place to get an education.”