Monday, April 29, 2002

Hamilton County's pace of exodus among U.S. worst

Urban population losses continuing

By Ken Alltucker,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County's population woes continued over the last year with a loss of nearly 10,000 residents, a faster decline than all the large U.S. counties except Philadelphia, according to Census figures released today.

        The county population estimates are the first released since last April's riots and punctuate a continuing trend of people leaving Hamilton County to suburban Butler, Warren, Clermont and Boone counties.

        The new data also show two Northern Kentucky counties — Campbell and Kenton — lost population. Boone County now has eclipsed Campbell in population, according to the estimates.

        Suburban residents are feeling the effects.

        “There's stop signs at every corner and house after house everywhere you look. There's so much traffic and people and the schools are full,” complained Marlene Griffith, a 15-year Florence resident. “Instead of building all these subdivisions, builders should have to build schools to go along with them.”

        In Butler County's Liberty Township, the population rocketed 146 percent between 1990 and 2000.

        “If I could move to the country now, I would. But there isn't any country to move to anymore,” lamented Richard Smith, who moved to the township 36 years ago.

        Hamilton wasn't the only Ohio county getting bad news from the new figures. Cleveland's Cuyahoga and Dayton's Montgomery also were on the list of the top 10 population losers among America's 100 largest counties.

        The new figures measuring population changes from April 2000 to July 2001 worry local political, business and civic leaders on several fronts:

        • They point to Cincinnati's continued decline. Though the new estimates do not include cities or townships, experts believe Cincinnati is responsible for much of Hamilton County's 1.2 percent drop to 835,362.

        During the 1990s, Cincinnati lost 9 percent of its population, prompting Hamilton County to lose 2.4 percent of its base.

        • The population drain leaves communities struggling to fund police, fire and other basic government obligations with a declining tax base.

        • Suburbs, too, have difficulty paving new roads and building schools needed to serve rapidly growing communities.

        The suburban boom has generated sharp debate among civic organizations, political leaders and private interests on strategies to manage sprawling growth and bolster the urban core.

        “People are following the main interstates and the jobs,” said David Varady, a University of Cincinnati planning professor. “I think the people who want new houses are more likely to find them further out.”

        Even some newer residents of Butler County say they are concerned about the pace of suburban growth.

        “Urban sprawl isn't something they've got a good handle on here,” said John Gandee, who recently moved to Liberty from suburban Columbus.

        “You never know what they are going to develop next to you. We would like to know that we're not going to have a gas station on every corner out here and from past experience, it very well could happen.”

        While Cincinnati and many older suburbs ringing the city struggle to keep people, the region's suburbs beckon with acres of new homes built over freshly plowed farmland.

        Warren County maintained its position as Ohio's second-fastest growing county, up 6.7 percent, and Northern Kentucky's Boone County grew 5.2 percent, the second-fastest clip in the Bluegrass State.

        Those booming suburbs sustained 13-county Greater Cincinnati's growth, albeit barely, at less than one percent to 1,994,521.

        The booming suburbs largely grew at Hamilton County's expense, according to an Enquirer analysis of the new Census figures and Internal Revenue Service migration data.

        More than 16,000 people left Hamilton County from April 2000 to July 2001. The most popular destinations, according to the IRS data: Warren, Butler and Clermont counties.

        Warren County alone welcomed 8,653 newcomers from Hamilton County and elsewhere; the Census data show the rest of its population gain came from births. Nearly 5,000 people moved to Boone County.

   Here are the fastest-growing and shrinking counties among the 100 largest in the United states between April 2000 and July 2001, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

1. Clark County, Nev., 6.5%
2. Riverside County, Calif., 5.9%
3. San Joaquin County, Calif., 5.6%
4. Gwinnett County, Ga., 5.6%
5. Wake County, N.C., 4.4%

1. Philadelphia County, Pa., -1.7%
2. Hamilton County, Ohio -1.2%
3. Suffolk County, Mass. -1.1%
4. Cuyahoga County, Ohio -1.0%
5. Milwaukee County, Wis., -0.9%
   Source: U.S. Census Bureau

        Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin fears population drops may correlate to dwindling tax collections.

        “It's a concern to me if we are losing population,” said Mr. Dowlin. “The other thing I would like to know is if we are losing jobs and tax base. That to me is as important as the population drop.”

        Although the Census figures don't include any data about the region's economy, a report released last week by the University of Cincinnati indicated new business investment dropped by more than $1 billion in 2001.

        Other businesses left the city altogether over the last year.

        Michael Bambino relocated his Over-the-Rhine photography studio to West Chester in southeastern Butler County after April's riots.

        Mr. Bambino rented a studio at 12th and Walnut for six years, but long-time customers seeking wedding and family portraits became uneasy with the location.

        “People were just uncomfortable,” Mr. Bambino said. “As far as family shots, there is just no way they were going to bring their children down there.”

        Hamilton County is not the only area fighting to keep its population and businesses. Despite such high-profile developments as Newport on the Levee and a revitalized Covington riverfront, Campbell and Kenton counties posted slight declines. Those communities share many of the same problems as Cincinnati, including aging housing and lack of land to develop, said Greg Harris, executive director of Citizens for Civic Renewal.

        Mr. Harris said the data show that Greater Cincinnati leaders need to consider investing in older suburbs as well as the city to stem decline.

        “If the trends continue, we are going to look like metropolitan Detroit,” Mr. Harris said of the highly segregated area known for its wide gulf between rich and poor neighborhoods in the city and suburbs.

        The Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission launched a countywide planning process to chart the region's growth.

        Ron Miller, executive director of the Hamilton County planning group, said declining population doesn't necessarily correlate to impoverished communities.

        He cited a Brookings Institution report that highlighted communities with declining population such as St. Louis and Pittsburgh that successfully attract high-paying jobs.

        “In some places, population loss for urban counties is not necessarily bad,” Mr. Miller said.

       Jennifer Edwards of the Enquirer contributed to this report.


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