The funny thing is this, says Dave Carlsrud, mayor of rural Valley City, North Dakota: “Neither one of us wears caps. I hardly ever wear a cap.”
But a cap is what’s at stake this month as the mayors of rural Valley City and Jamestown, North Dakota, compete in a friendly challenge to determine which city will have the higher 2020 Census response rate.
At the end of the challenge, the mayor of the “losing” city will have to wear a baseball cap promoting the winning city at his next televised city meeting. Think “I Love Valley City” or “I Love Jamestown” stitched across the front.
As of August 3, Jamestown held a slight advantage, with 71.4% of households having responded to the 2020 Census online, by phone, or by mail. Valley City was just behind, at 69.5%. Both cities were well ahead of the national response rate of 62.9%.
“The numbers have been bumping up,” Carlsrud says. “So, it’ll be fun to see if anyone comes with a fast finish or not.”
“Or anybody stumbles at the finish,” adds Mayor Dwaine Heinrich, his counterpart in Jamestown.
Theirs is one of many 2020 Census response rate challenges that unfolded across the United States. These challenges have been a creative way to encourage communities to respond to the once-a-decade population count.
In one challenge, cities competed for the right to rename a city square for a month. In another, leaders from the losing city will volunteer at a food bank. In another, they’ll clean a fire truck in the winning town.
“The census is so critical to everybody in America,” Carlsrud says. “When we had the opportunity to help market this, I was really excited about it. And Dwaine seemed to be on board as well. And so we can have as much fun as we want, but we just have to take these opportunities to use that platform to get the information out about the census.”
The two cities are separated by 35 miles along Interstate 94 in North Dakota.
Known as the Buffalo City, Jamestown is home to the scenic University of Jamestown and a regional airport that sends two flights a day to Denver. Located 100 miles due west of Fargo and 100 miles east of Bismarck, the city also features a state-of-the-art aerospace facility, the National Buffalo Museum, a potato processing plant, and St. James Basilica, the only basilica in North Dakota.
“An accurate census count is important to us for a number of reasons,” Heinrich says. “For one, we want to be able to show expanding businesses that we are not on the road to decline and hopefully help them make a decision to invest or relocate here in Jamestown, Stutsman County, or for Valley City and Barnes County.”
Valley City is a bit smaller, with a 2010 Census population of 6,585, compared with Jamestown’s 15,427. In 2017, Expedia named it the most beautiful city in the state, noting its historic bridges, parklands, and location along the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway. It also is the home to Valley City State University, which broke ground on a new arts center over the summer.
The results of the 2020 Census will help inform how hundreds of billions of dollars are allocated to communities across the country each year for the next 10 years. That federal funding affects Medicaid, Head Start, school lunch programs, road and bridge construction, emergency response programs, and more.
“This is probably the easiest way for [people] to contribute to a community,” Carlsrud says. “When you contribute to your community, it brings back to you—as a citizen—more services.”
Census data also determines how many seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and influences legislative redistricting. Ensuring that his region is properly represented in the North Dakota state legislature is particularly important to Heinrich. “Because, as we all know,” he says, “the legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years.”
Just as important is ensuring that his community receives the support and services it needs.
“I would say the most difficult challenge that we have, as far as in city government, is money,” Heinrich says. “The simple fact of trying to figure out how to pay for things causes some headaches. And so, it’s critically important that each and every person that lives here is counted.”
Not just for both communities, says Carlsrud, but for the region as a whole.
“We’re kind of twin cities, because we’re in between Fargo and Bismarck. We’re on the smaller side, compared to them. … We kind of have to partner up here if we’re going to compete. That’s kind of how I view it anyway. And that we can work together to create a greater interest in the census, I think is a heck of a good deal.”
The idea for the response rate challenge was hatched by Census Bureau Partnership Specialist Erin Musland and the Complete Count Committees in both cities. Complete Count Committees are coalitions of tribal, state, and local governments and community leaders working to motivate residents to respond to the 2020 Census. The committees have been a driving force in raising awareness in both Valley City and Jamestown—placing stickers on grocery bags and carryout food containers, partnering with the local ministerial association, and more.
Both mayors promoted the 2020 Census on television and at economic development and city council meetings. They repeated the message, over and over, working toward a complete count—and the rare sight of the other mayor in a special baseball cap.
“If I see him sobbing or something like that, then I’ll feel bad.” Heinrich jokes, when asked how much he’d enjoy seeing his counterpart in a “I Love Jamestown“ cap. “If I see him with a smile on his face, then I’ll feel good. But I don’t take pleasure in anyone else’s pain. So, in other words, I’ll really enjoy it!”
Carlsrud adds: “And, if we come to the finish line and one or the other is ahead by one or two points, and our percentage is higher than the rest of the state, I think we can both feel good, whoever has to wear a cap.”
Want to see who won? Check the results and keep tabs on your hometown by using our Response Rate Maps.