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Census surprise: City is shrinking

Officials are trying to find out why figures show Brooksville's population is declining - and what effect it will have on the city.

[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
This house, along with several others on Josephine Street, was vacant during the 2000 Census.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- Brooksville's leaders knew their city wasn't growing fast. But they were confident it was growing.

As recently as April 1, 1999, for example, the state had estimated the city's population at 7,839, an increase of about 5 percent compared with the 7,440 people counted in the 1990 census.

Then, last week, the city received some surprising news.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Brooksville's population actually declined during the past 10 years to 7,264, a decrease of 2.4 percent.

"Of course, we were disappointed. We didn't think there would be a significant increase, but we were expecting some increase," said City Manager Richard Anderson.

The figures left City Council members and staffers trying to determine the short- and long-term effects of the population drop, which might include a smaller share of some tax revenues and more difficulty qualifying for grants. The Census Bureau estimates that each resident represents $1,500 in annual state and federal tax revenue, meaning the city's lower population would cost it about $264,000 a year.

Officials were also looking for the cause of the decline. It might be a simple matter of deaths in Brooksville outnumbering births. Some suggested it was a result of the exodus of young people seeking better jobs in bigger cities. Others blamed an undercount.

One indication that the Census Bureau might have missed some residents of Brooksville: Only 56 percent of the households that were mailed census forms returned them, compared with 70 percent countywide -- the highest rate in the state.

"Brooksville has historically been a very low-reporting area," said Ivan Gartenlaub, the bureau's regional director.

Also, though the populations of individual neighborhoods are not yet available, other factors suggest the biggest drop may have been in the predominantly African-American area of south Brooksville. The Census Bureau has traditionally had the hardest time counting minority residents, which has been attributed at least partly to a higher level of distrust in the federal government, Gartenlaub said.

An unincorporated section of the county just south of the city lost 13 percent of its population while an area just to the north showed slight gains. And a Census tract that included parts of south Brooksville -- Hillside Estates and Tanglewood Apartments -- dropped by 17 percent. It was the only Census tract in the county that lost population during the 1990s.

Gartenlaub said he had been concerned about an undercount in south Brooksville when the count began last year. Census estimates show 936 Hernando County residents were missed in 1990; many were in south Brooksville, Gartenlaub said.

"In 1990, south Brooksville was the problem," he said.

The number could have been higher this year, he said, because, in 1990, Census workers were allowed some flexibility in estimating the number of people in households. In 2000, he said, "we had to count noses."

Gartenlaub said he made a special effort to recruit Census workers who lived in the neighborhood to conduct door-to-door follow-up surveys, partly to overcome suspicion of the federal agency. When he was unsuccessful, he said, he hired John Wallace, then president of the Hernando chapter of the NAACP, to supervise the count in south Brooksville.

"He was our entree into the neighborhood," Gartenlaub said.

Richard Howell, who led one of the survey teams, said workers made a strong effort to count every resident. But, he said, some were certainly overlooked, a fact he blamed on problems with the forms originally sent to households.

"There was a serious undercount," said Howell, referring especially to the area just south of the city that showed a dramatic drop. That section includes Twigg, Josephine and School streets.

"There are more houses and more children down there than there were (in 1990). I don't know where they get those figures from," he said.

But Howell and others said there certainly was an actual loss of population in some parts of Brooksville.

This is especially true in the census tract that incorporates a diverse group of populations in eastern Brooksville and the rural area just to the east of the city limits.

Hillside Estates, a government-subsidized apartment complex, is in this tract, and it has far more vacancies than it did in 1990, Howell said.

The tract also includes the Clover Leaf Farms subdivision, where most residents are of retirement age. Many have died in recent years, said City Council member Mary Staib, who lives there. And many of the lots will continue to be vacant, she said, until the construction work is completed on U.S. 41 and the State Road 50 truck bypass on the south side of Brooksville.

"Everyone is complaining about the roads being torn up like they are," she said. "Who wants to live in a war zone?"

David Miles, a Hernando County planner and demographics expert, said he will have a far better idea of what caused the decline when he receives figures for smaller Census blocks. Those will show, for example, if the drop in population was in retirement communities or in minority neighborhoods.

He thinks an aging population is probably the biggest factor for Brooksville's population decline. In most parts of the state, deaths are more numerous than births, and new development accounts for population increases.

"That would be my first instinct, to look at births and deaths," Miles said. "I think that's what's driving this. We know there aren't any Pristine Places and Silverthorn subdivisions in that area."

"This is typical of what you'd expect of an aging population," said Anderson, the city manager. "Kids move off, and parents grow older. Hernando County is the kind of place where younger people tend to leave. People tend to gravitate to metropolitan areas for better opportunities."

That might not be the case for long. Several city staffers and council members pointed out that Brooksville will almost certainly grow, and maybe rapidly, in the next 10 years. The Suncoast Parkway is expected to bring new residents. So, to a lesser degree, will the improvements to U.S. 41 and SR 50, which are expected to be completed in about a year.

Long term, said Staib and Mayor Joe Johnston, the city's main concern will be the same as the rest of the county's: making sure the growth results in a livable community.

"I think what most people want here is quality growth. We certainly don't want the Mackle brothers here, or somebody like that," Staib said, referring to the developers of Spring Hill.

"You need growth, but you need growth of both commercial and residential," Johnston said. "Residential growth will not pay for itself,and the numbers of population are not the best determiner of the fiscal health of a community."


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