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"Micropolitan" America's Place in the Location Decision

"Micros," which tend to have healthy economies, are attracting businesses of all types with their ample, qualified labor and enviable quality of life.

Nov 06
Have you heard the latest buzzword, "micropolitan"? It's not a hip designer drink, but rather a relatively new Census category with a cool name. It describes those generally overlooked small towns that countless companies are now including in their site selection searches.

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget introduced the micropolitan (or "micro") term in June 2003. Seems the Feds needed a new moniker for locales filling the gap between the well-known "metro" and "rural" categories with America's rapidly changing demographics. Specifically, a micro has a "concentrated" population of at least 10,000 but less than 50,000; one or more counties with a core urban area, and - in government speak - a high degree of "social and economic integration." Its central city, for the most part, is typically a modest-sized town.

Although America's 577 micros may not all have a Starbucks (yet), it doesn't mean they're sleepy environments. Truth is, chances are good many soon could be landing nice-sized manufacturing facilities or retail stores that typically locate in metros. Why all the attention? Research shows these locales tend to have healthy economies that attract businesses of all types, employees, local shoppers, and visitors. That may explain why 1 in 10 Americans - almost 30 million potential customers - are thought to live in micros.

Key Findings
To understand micros better, first let's look at metros - those 361 areas defined as having 50,000 or more residents. The U.S. Census Bureau recognizes 50 "big" metro areas with more than one million people; they are home to almost 75 percent of the U.S. population and have key transportation infrastructure as well.

While metros may have large centers surrounded by little additional population, according to Robert Lang, "Micros can be populous regions without big centers." In fact, hundreds of micros have larger populations than metros because, although they have at least one center city with less than 50,000 residents, they also have thousands more people living in close proximity.

Lang, the "father" of micropolitan research, wrote the groundbreaking 2004 research report "Micropolitan America: A Brand New Geography" for the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech (MIVT) in Alexandria, Va. He is the founding director of the Urban Research Institute (part of the school's College of Architecture and Urban Studies).

"The designation of micros addresses a longstanding concern among rural advocates that many smaller - although important - cities fall below the Census's [metro] area category," reports Lang. As a result, he believes one major new policy implication is that now formally "non-metro" places can apply for metro-based federal and state aid. He also predicts micros "will form organizations and partnerships to better understand their conditions and lobby for improvements" in the years to come.

At the time of publication, Lang's landmark report revealed several key findings about micros, as follows:

• For the first time in America's history, as of the year 2000 rural areas covered less than half of the continental U.S.
• Micros account for more than a fifth of all U.S. counties. There are at least 77 two-county micros, 17 three-county micros, and 2 four-county micros.
• Micro and metro areas "substantially overlap," as the most populous micro area outranks the smallest 103 metro areas.
• Micros are not identical small towns, but rather can have extremely different personalities just as big cities do.

Areas that don't rate the micro label because they have less than 10,000 residents are now considered "deeply rural," notes Lang. "Most of these places are in the West and are dominated by public land holdings, including military lands, national parks, and Indian reservations." The majority of them, he adds, "continue to suffer from depopulation and distress, as they rely on such industries as agriculture and resource extraction."

Micro Divisions
If specified criteria are met, a metro containing an urban core with a population of 2.5 million or more can be subdivided into smaller units called metropolitan divisions. Eleven metros (Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.) have a combined 29 metro divisions.

Like metros, micros also can be easily subdivided into categories, as Lang does neatly in his analysis report. For example, those identified by population size are dubbed "mini-metros" and "Smallvilles." The former are more like medium metros (e.g., Hilton Head, N.C., pop. 141,615), while the latter are the least-populated micros (e.g., Spirit Lake, Iowa, pop. 16,424).

Lang calls fast-growing micros "Boomtowns" (e.g., Palm Coast, Fla., which increased population 73 percent from 1990 to 2000). "Most.are in the shadows of big, booming metropolitan areas such as Las Vegas, Jacksonville, and Denver," he reports. In contrast, "Dwindlevilles" are experiencing the fastest population loss. They are almost entirely in the South, and many are far away from metros. For example, Pecos, Texas, (pop. 13,137) is 328 miles from San Antonio, while Marquette, Mich., (pop. 64,634) is 227 miles from Milwaukee.

"Nearburgs" are extensions of peripheral metro development, notes Lang, "which even in the Rust Belt often translates into fast population gains at the edge." These would include Marion, Ohio - just 36 miles from Columbus - and Batavia, N.Y. - only 32 miles from Rochester. They are not prone to be in the West.

Interestingly, the top 10 most remote micros - called "Lonesometowns" - are west of the 98th meridian line, or in the Midwest's Great Plains region. Havre, Mon., (pop. 16,673) sits 557 miles from Seattle; and Roswell, N.M., is 418 miles from Denver.

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