New data to shed light on Minn. towns, big city neighborhoods

by Elizabeth Dunbar, Minnesota Public Radio
December 14, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — There's a reason the new school is being built on the other side of town, and that the bus route map looks the way it does -- planners studied census data to better understand where and how we live and work.

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The U.S. Census Bureau collects data through the ongoing American Community Survey that inform decisions about public infrastructure. For the first time Tuesday, officials will release survey data collected over a five-year period, replacing the information that used to be collected on the long form of the census once every 10 years.

While information on Minnesota's largest cities and counties was already available, enough surveys have now been completed to yield reliable results in smaller areas: neighborhoods within cities, small counties, towns and townships.

New five-year survey data will now be published every year.

"This gives us a lot more information and puts us in a very different position than where we've been," said Libby Starling, research manager for the Metropolitan Council. "Outdated census data will be a thing of the past."

Starling said the data will be useful in comparing geographical areas. But she and other researchers cautioned that it won't be the best way to determine what has happened over time.

"The data on poverty doesn't give us a good idea of the poverty that existed last year," said Ben Winchester, a demographer and sociologist with the University of Minnesota's Extension program.

Winchester said that instead, he's looking forward to tracking things like migration patterns with the new data. His previous research showed college-age adults in Minnesota move to big cities, while adults with children move their families to smaller cities and rural areas.

"It's great for getting kind of a big picture look at what's going on," he said.

It's been well documented that Minnesota has an aging population, but the new survey data will be able to show what areas of the state are aging the most. The trend can have a big impact on a town's tax base, said Marnie Werner, research manager for the Center for Rural Policy and Development in St. Peter.

"One question is what happens to the current housing stock when the older generation moves off to senior housing and the kids have moved to the cities," Werner said. "[Local governments] can't look at their residential property taxes in the same way."

But other researchers said they expect to see some surprises about the state's aging population. Bart Finzel, who directs the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota-Morris, said immigrants have been moving their families to smaller cities and towns in greater numbers

"I think we might see some communities, for first time in a long while, are starting to become younger," Finzel said.

Finzel said the data will be especially valuable to rural Minnesota, because smaller cities and counties usually don't have enough resources to do their own survey research.

"There's really no other place to get it," Finzel said. "It's very expensive to get detailed information."

Mike Darrow, city administrator in Gilbert on Minnesota's Iron Range, said the data will help his city work with others in the region to deliver services during tough economic times in which local governments have seen their state aid get cut.

"More than ever it's about developing partnerships with other units of government," said Darrow, who serves as vice president of the American Planning Association's Minnesota chapter.

While all the data is being released Tuesday, it will take time for researchers like Starling at the Metropolitan Council to digest it all.

"We're excited and curious about what it will tell us, and we expect to be unpacking it for a while," she said.

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