By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Led by rapid growth of Warren and Boone counties, Greater Cincinnati swelled to more than 2 million people a year ago, even as Hamilton County's population slid at a faster clip than all but two of the nation's largest counties.
The new census estimates documenting population for all U.S. counties from July 2001 to July 2002 were released Wednesday. They reveal the relentless march to Cincinnati's suburbs that's catapulted Boone and Warren counties into the ranks of the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties.
But that shift also has chipped away at the region's core with Hamilton County's population dropping by more than 7,000 residents - a trend that started a decade ago and some experts predict will continue for years to come. Among the nation's 100 largest counties, only San Francisco and San Mateo, Calif. - stung by the dot-com bust - lost population at a faster rate.
Hamilton County civic and political leaders described the report as a call to action.
"This is another one of these warning flags," said Phil Heimlich, a first-term Hamilton County commissioner. "We're losing people. We're losing private-sector jobs. If we don't pay attention, we're in for a major crash."
Though the new estimates don't include numbers for cities, townships or villages, many believe Hamilton County's drain stems from a shrinking population in the county's older or "inner ring" suburbs and Cincinnati, which lost 9 percent of its residents in the 1990s.
The combination of a slow economy and a declining tax base has left several older Hamilton County communities grappling to pay for essential services such as police and fire departments. For instance, the city of Cheviot this year imposed across-the-board budget cuts of 5 percent and began charging for ambulance and paramedic runs.
Others say the spread of the region's population toward its edges is increasing commuting times, adding to air pollution and adding to the cost of road repairs, as more and more residents drive on interstates and highways to get to work.
Suburbs also hit
Yet the cost of public services is rising in the suburbs, too, as newcomers demand new schools, parks, roads and other services.
Mason resident Steve Schwandner notices changes every day with more people, traffic signals and commuters on congested highways. Warren County's population last year jumped 4.6 percent to 175,133, the second-fastest growing county in Ohio and No. 45 among the nation's 100 fastest-growing counties.
Schwandner echoes the reasons that attracted many of his high-income neighbors to the southern Warren County community: new homes on large lots, good schools and easy access to Interstate 71.
"Birds of the same feather tend to flock together," he said. "You'll find common characteristics of people who live here. They tend to have high household incomes and similar backgrounds."
Boone County added more than 3,200 new residents last year for a growth rate of 3.6 percent, the second-fastest rate in Kentucky and No. 96 among the nation's fastest growers.
Among the county's new residents will be Steven and Stephanie Ballinger, who are moving from Delhi Township to a two-story home in the new Burlington subdivision at the end of May. Hamilton County expatriates are the top source of growth for suburban counties, a key reason for Hamilton County's population drop.
The Ballingers lived on the county's west side for years, but they decided the area has changed too much. The young parents want to live in a neighborhood where their two children can safely play outside past dusk during the summer and attend excellent schools during the academic year.
"It's not that the west side's bad, it's just that we're going with the area, the school district (and) trying to give the kids a good environment," said Stephanie Ballinger, whose husband graduated from Elder High School in 1990. "It's not the same as when (my husband) grew up. Everybody knows west siders don't move, but he's the one who wants to go. ... we're trying to give the kids a good opportunity."
The continued trend of Hamilton County residents moving to the suburbs has concerned county planners. The Census Bureau estimates show that this migration spiked 16 percent last year with 12,667 more residents moving out of the county than moving to it.
The growth rates of remaining Cincinnati-area counties in 2002 ranged from 1.9 percent for Grant and Ohio counties to one-tenth of 1 percent in Kenton County. Other than Hamilton, only Gallatin County lost population (down 1.2 percent) and Campbell's growth was flat.
The Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission has embarked on a countywide planning process that aims to tackle the problems of population and job loss in the core county. Among its chores is to predict how much more the county's population will drop.
"I don't think we've hit bottom yet," said Ron Miller, executive director of the planning group.
Yet Miller said doom-and-gloom population reports don't necessarily indicate Hamilton County's decline. A more important indicator is whether the city and county keep large companies and high-paying jobs.
Other cities such as Pittsburgh demonstrate that the region's core can thrive economically even as residents leave, he said.
"However, if Clermont, Warren and Butler are thriving as a result of the job loss in Hamilton County, that's not acceptable," Miller said.
Heimlich advocates slashing bureaucratic costs and making county government more efficient to promote development. The ultimate result would be reducing costs - and taxes.
"Right now it's hard for a resident of Westwood or a senior citizen in Hyde Park to justify staying here," Heimlich said. "Why not move to Mason where taxes are lower?"
Builders say there is still strong potential to build more homes in the city and in Hamilton County. But they charge that the process of getting government permits and approvals needs to be easier, and many builders aren't persistent enough to shepherd the process through.
"There is a pent-up demand for housing in every neighborhood in the city," said David Seuberling, president of Spencerhill Homes and chairman of the Home Builders Association of Greater Cincinnati's executive committee.
Among Spencerhill's projects: a 33-home development in Mount Lookout off Delta Avenue. The homes sold quickly with an average price in excess of $400,000, and Seuberling hopes to strike gold again with a 102-unit Citirama in Westwood.
New construction side by side with fixing up of older, abandoned homes can trigger a neighborhood's revival, he said.
"There's a belief that Hamilton County is filled and there is nowhere to go so people move to Butler County or Warren County," Seuberling said. "That's a myth."
Enquirer reporter Susan Vela contributed.
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