BOSTON — EIGHT months ago, with lots of national and local press coverage, the United States Census Bureau announced that 33 towns and cities around the US had been newly designated as "urbanized areas." Population in the areas had increased to over 50,000 and had outgrown most rural characteristics.
At the time, a city official in one of the new areas, Brunswick, Georgia, said, "This is really big time."
But eight months later, many of the town officials of the "urbanized areas" are not so sure they have hit the "big time."
"After we were designated we started making some phone calls," said Gene Lewis, planning director for Lewisville, Texas, one of the new urbanized areas, "to the Department of Commerce, to our congressman, and he said he didn't have the foggiest idea of what it meant."
"We never received any notification, which was surprising," said Joe Misurrelli, city manager of Crystal Lake, Ill., another designated area. "We thought we would. The news media told us."
Larry McPherson, public works director for Lompoc, Calif., another designated area, said his town received a letter of congratulation from a congressman, "but nothing telling us what an [urbanized area] could mean in terms of benefits."
Two city officials were unaware that their towns were listed in the Federal Register as receiving federal transportation funds of almost $400,000 each as a result of becoming an "urbanized area." Told by press release
According to Nancy Torrieri, a supervisory geographer for the Census Bureau, the agency uses only a press release to announce the designation, but no direct letter is sent to local officials because "the areas can include several towns, and which officials do you notify?"
She said,"We received many, many calls from many different news services because of the [press release]. In addition, every congressional delegation was informed."
She also said the list of new areas is published in the Federal Register, which is "an officially designated medium for communicating all sorts of things."
What are the specific benefits of being designated an urbanized area? Richard Forstall, staff assistant in the population division of the Census Bureau, said the designation probably has a "minimal impact on an area, but may mean more to the private sector than anything the federal or state government can do." He said local newspapers, TV stations and the Chambers of Commerce can "use the designation for purposes like advertising." No automatic benefits
James McDonnell, a spokesman for the US Department of Transportation said, "There are no automatic benefits that come into play" when an area is designated to be urbanized.
"If I had known I wasn't going to get some kind of a handbook telling me the benefits of being designated, I wouldn't have gotten my hopes up," said a city manager in Florida, reflecting comments by other city managers. "Unless there is something special about all this, I question the worth of it."
The "urbanized area" designation in fact originates with the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB). "The Census Bureau does the technical work for OMB," said Mr. Forstall, "and the list of urbanized areas along with the MSAs are used by all federal statistical agencies in order to insure consistency."
Maury Cagle, assistant public information officer of the Census Bureau, said the designations "put the cities on the scoreboard." Chuck Owens, city manager of Lewisville, Texas, said it might help if a "corporation wants to relocate to a new area."
Because of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), the designated urbanized areas are eligible to receive transportation funds (administered by the governor in each state) whether they want them or not. All the areas and the amounts allocated to them are listed in the Dec. 23, 1991 Federal Register.
The irony is that many of the areas do not have transit systems. "Even if they don't have a transit system," said Richard Centner, a spokesman for the US Transit Administration,"they are eligible for funds if they decide to start one." No transit? No problem.
Yuma, Ariz., an older urbanized area, does not have a transit system but is listed in the Federal Register as receiving $521,816 as a "section 9 formula apportionment," said Centner. "The Governor of Arizona then had transit funds available to be used elsewhere when there is a need."
For Crystal Lake, the urbanized area designation is a mixed bag.
"My guess is that the main benefit is that it establishes our vitality and credibility as an economic base," said Mr. Misurelli. But the change in transportation funding presents a new challenge to his city.
"We used to be part of a federal program that aided urban systems," he said. "Over 20 years we got about $2 million for highway improvement. Now, because there is a planning agency for the whole region, we'll be one little piece of the pie, and we'll have to compete with other communities for our share of those transportation funds."