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Some doubt population decrease

In an area that experienced a 45 percent population increase, seven census tracts apparently bucked the trend.

[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Jan Smith sits in the yard of her home in Lutz on Tuesday. Initially, she was skeptical that her neighborhood could have declined in population during the 1990s. But she realizes that children moving away may have played a role.

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2001


LUTZ -- Could a neighborhood in the middle of high-growth northwest Hillsborough County really have lost population during the 1990s?

"No way," said Jan Smith, when she heard about the new numbers for Census Tract 111.04. She has lived there since 1976 and chaired the county Planning Commission in the 1990s.

What about children growing up and moving out?

"Well, now that you mention it," she said, "there were four of us here in 1990, and now there's just Earl and me."

Then Mrs. Smith counted off couple after couple down her street whose children in 1990 had spread their wings as young adults by 2000.

It's just a theory, easily disputed. But it's one of the few explanations for the fact that seven census tracts north of Tampa, in an area that grew overall by 45 percent, finished the decade with fewer people.

Another theory: The census people messed up.

"We're stretching it here to find reasons why those areas are declining, when all hard evidence says they're not declining," said Jim Hosler, research director at the Planning Commission, and a local expert on the census.

Hosler believes clusters of people could have been coded into the wrong census tract as their numbers were recorded.

"It could be an apartment complex in the wrong area," he said. "That would do it."

Indeed, some of the most common discrepancies that surface as the Census Bureau reviews its work are such "geocoding" errors, said Mark Tolbert, a spokesman for Census 2000 media relations in suburban Washington, D.C.

By midsummer, the Census Bureau plans to release more detailed breakdowns and open up a two-year review period of numbers challenged by local governments. Based on the details, the Planning Commission could recommend challenges, Hosler said.

Populations recorded for neighboring census tracts buttress Hosler's suspicions.

Although Jan Smith's tract declined 11 percent, tract 111.05, immediately to the south, increased 4 percent.

Tract 113.01, between Lake Magdalene and N Dale Mabry Highway, declined 12 percent, but the tract immediately to the west increased six percent. The tract to the south, containing Original Carrollwood, rose by 11 percent.

Hosler lives in tract 113.01 and noted that houses were built there during the 1990s.

"There are kids all over the place every afternoon," he said.

In a broader sense, he asked, "If all these census tracts are losing population, why are all those schools overcrowded?"

Bill Person, director of pupil administrative services for the Hillsborough County School District, said schools can stay crowded even in neighborhoods with declining numbers of children. High population growth in outlying areas prompts the redrawing of school zones, which can ripple back into schools in older neighborhoods, he said. And most suburban schools receive students who are bused in from urban areas.

Person noted that the Lake Magdalene-area census tracts contain many older subdivisions with smaller houses.

"I think 20 years ago, those houses were more popular than they are now to the younger families with kids," he said.

He said such families today tend to seek newer homes in areas such as New Tampa and Westchase. The 2000 Census showed those areas had some of the highest percentages of children in north Hillsborough.

An area's population is important because for a decade, it influences government decisions on the level of services that need to be planned there. In the private sector, census statistics can influence business investments.

Of the seven tracts in the area with declining populations, five reflected larger decreases among people younger than 18 than among those older.

All seven tracts are dominated by neighborhoods built 20 or more years ago. They are shaded by trees that, like the children, grew tall and spread out.

"What you're seeing is the demographics, the aging of the families there," said Tom Aderhold, one of the longest-standing residents of Country Place and former president of the taxing district there.

Country Place straddles a pair of census tracts, 115.14 and 115.15, that lost population. The numbers of children declined while those of adults increased, yet the percentage of children remained higher than the county average of 25 percent.

"When we first got there, there were five-, 10-year-old kids running through the neighborhood," said Aderhold.

Now, he believes the neighborhood is beginning to receive an infusion of new families, including some adults who grew up there.

"Literally, we have seen two generations of kids," Aderhold said.

Hosler doubts that generations actually pass that way through a neighborhood; people come and go often. A huge wave of young people would have to move away to cause the overall population to drop, he said.

"I just don't think you had a whole lot of people out there who moved in to raise kids and are still there," he said.

Yet Jan Smith says that's the case in her neighborhood.

"Now it's just the parents who live in these houses," she said. "People live here until they feel like they don't want to deal with a three-acre lot."

-- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469 or coats@sptimes.com.


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