Small rural towns get new name - and new attention

Census Bureau now calls 565 far-flung hubs 'micropolitans.' Some of them are growing fast.

A micropolitan is: a) a frozen dessert for dieters; b) a popular magazine for young short women; c) a metro area in miniature.

If you answered c, the US Census Bureau would like to shake your hand. That's the name it affixed earlier this month to 565 rural areas across America that are beginning to look a little citified. They range from Abbeville, La., to Zanesville, Ohio, and include everything from ski resorts to retirement communities.

More important, they serve as a new way of looking at rural America and where it's headed. That direction is something observers are still figuring out. Since micropolitans are countrified places that work like metro areas, it's not yet clear whether they represent a new urban environment arising in the hinterland or an improved rural America, version 2.0.

Then there's the name, which admittedly doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.

"Let me write that down," says Elle Wasson, a volunteer extraordinaire upon learning that she now lives in the Sedalia, Mo., Micropolitan Statistical Area.

"Micropolis?" ventures Renee Weller, secretary at the local art museum.

"What's wrong with 'small town'?" asks Jack Robinson, owner of the local Chrysler-Dodge auto dealership. "That's what we are."

While the term may send thousands of small-town residents scrambling for their dictionaries, the federal gobbledygook retains an upside. By getting their own statistical designation, small towns may garner more attention from researchers and possibly more funds from federal and state government, demographers say. "If you're the place that gets designated as micropolitan, that's a big help," says Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech in Alexandria, Va. "You're on somebody's radar."

Micropolitans certainly break the mold of the sleepy rural town. They each have a population cluster of 10,000 to 50,000 residents. They're the places where rural people go to eat and shop. And while New Yorkers might turn up their noses at the idea that these small towns could possibly be called urban, they do serve as economic and distribution centers within rural areas.

Some micropolitans are expanding rapidly. Six of the nation's 25 fastest growing counties lie in micropolitan areas. The fastest-growing one - Eagle County in the heart of Colorado ski country - saw its population nearly double during the 1990s. Others, like Vernon Parish, La., have succumbed to rural decay.

These communities look surprisingly diverse in other ways. While senior citizens make up only 3 percent of Eagle County, Colo., they account for more than a quarter of the residents of Flagler County, Fla. And if some micropolitans remain overwhelmingly white, others are acquiring a stream of new immigrants that are transforming the community.

Sedalia, home to the Missouri State Fair and some of Scott Joplin's most famous ragtime songs, falls in the latter category. While its downtown of three-story brick storefronts with arched windows, its beautifully remodeled train depot, and rehabbed historic hotel evoke the early 20th century - even its pedestrian crosswalk lights look old-fashioned - this working-class city of 24,300 is undergoing dramatic change.

In the past decade alone, a local chicken-processing plant has attracted waves of immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The county's official Hispanic population has swelled from less than 1 percent of residents to 4 percent during the 1990s. Social workers suggest the actual figure might reach as high as 18 percent. Separately, a growing number of Ukrainians have found their way to Sedalia and now number an estimated 600. Some are farmers; others are craftsmen. The immigrants have breathed new life into the city just as German and Irish residents did more than a century ago when this was a railroad town.

Not surprisingly, the influx has created some tension. But "it's smoother now than the first contact," says Irl Tessendorf, city administrator "I think it has worked its way through the process." Sedalia now holds Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the city park. And when the Ukrainian community wanted to build its own church, other local denominations hosted Ukrainian dinners, where the new arrivals performed music to help raise money.

"We are really a caring community - a community that meets needs and comes forward," says Mrs. Wasson, volunteer director for the Pettis County Community Partnership and wife of the new mayor. "I think we're wealthy in that way."

Like cities many times its size, Sedalia is seeing construction move outside city limits. The development hardly qualifies as suburbs, but it boosted the county population 11 percent during the 1990s.

That's one reason the Census Bureau recognizes counties - not just population centers - as micropolitans. "We ran through all kinds of different terminologies: 'small town and rural,' 'countrified,' just about everything," says Michael Ratcliffe, geographer at the Census Bureau. "But the micropolitan concept caught on."

Whether micropolitans represent a new beginning for rural America or the beginning of the end remains open to debate. They not only work like metropolitan areas, they're beginning to offer the same goods. Sedalia boasts a Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, an Applebee's restaurant, and of course Wal-Mart.

Sedalia attracts big-city interest because it hosts the state fair, draws music afficionados to its annual Scott Joplin festival, and boasts a stunning new art museum written up in The New York Times. "As we become a global community, it's not so important for artists to live where the market is," says Douglass Freed, the museum's director and a noted artist

But the friendly, can-do spirit of the place remains distinctly rural. In Sedalia, says local developer David Furnell, "people want to be involved in everything."

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