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    Welcome to Belleair Shore. Population: 0

    Residents of the small town are surprised to learn that, according to the 2000 census, they don't exist.

    By DEBORAH O'NEIL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 22, 2001


    BELLEAIR SHORE -- This sliver of a town where all 51 houses are on the water, on the same side of the same street, has suffered many indignities.

    There was the time police ticketed two women for drinking iced coffee on the beach, sparking nationwide ridicule.

    Then there was the double-mayor debacle, when two men claimed the highest office in the town, which has no town hall.

    Small slights continue every day. Mail arrives addressed to Belleair Beach. Pizza deliveries end up in Indian Rocks Beach. People can't even get the town's name right. (There's no "s' on the end.)

    But there is perhaps no greater slap in the face than being told you don't exist. According to recently released figures from the 2000 census, the population of Belleair Shore is zero.

    A big, fat zero.

    Mayor John Robertson can't figure what the town did to deserve it.

    "We've been so good," Robertson said. "We're getting along with our neighbors. Everybody is happy."

    Surely, the census is mistaken. There are people living in those enormous houses on Gulf Boulevard enclosed by enormous concrete walls. Right?

    A knock on one door is greeted by a smiling woman holding a bottle of spray cleaner. Sorry, she says, I don't live here, I just work here. No one else is home.

    Out on the beach, accessible through three gated parking lots with signs that read, "Belleair Shore Private," there's barely a soul in sight. Two women sitting by the water live in Belleair Beach. A man walking with a young woman is just visiting.

    The hottest spot along Belleair Shore's shore is a construction site where workers are putting a new cap on a seawall outside a mansion with a swimming pool just a stone's throw from the ocean. But the sweaty men doing the heavy lifting sure don't live in Belleair Shore.

    "These people I've seen one time," construction worker George Blake of Clearwater offers, pointing to a neighbor's place. "The house next door, he came out yesterday and sat outside for about 10 minutes and went back inside."

    The census must be wrong, because Blake says he's bumped into a few Belleair Shore residents.

    "They're not too bad if you can find them home," he said.

    Out on Gulf Boulevard, Ashley Dressel is home. And yes, she filled out her census form, specifically emphasizing to a census worker who came to her door that she lives in Belleair Shore.

    "I made a big deal of Belleair Shore so it would be counted," Dressel said. "We do exist."

    * * *

    It's too early to know exactly what went wrong when the population of Belleair Shore was tallied. The town has 84 registered voters, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office. And several residents told the Times they filled out their census forms.

    With the family of Commissioner John Hayes alone, Belleair Shore should have shown at least three people.

    "A census taker came to the door and wanted to verify we lived where we said we lived," Hayes said. "They had us mixed up with an address in Indian Rocks Beach. She said, "You live in Indian Rocks Beach.' I said, "No, I live in Belleair Shore.' "

    Robertson said he personally told census workers about the boundaries of the town on the west side of Gulf Boulevard, all of 5,000 feet long and an average 230 feet wide.

    "I actually had the census people down in town hall, which is in my house," Robertson said. "We did everything we were supposed to do."

    When the mayor learned of the census' mistake, he called to ask what was going on. Here's how Robertson recalled the conversation:

    Census bureaucrat: "I guess the census doesn't think you exist."

    Robertson: "Wouldn't you write to me and tell me we don't exist?"

    Census bureaucrat: "Why would we write to you if you don't exist?"

    "I really felt it was Alice in Wonderland," Robertson said.

    Truth is, although the 2000 census has been touted as the most accurate population count in U.S. history, hundreds of thousands of people were overlooked or assigned to incorrect geographic locations.

    "We've made great strides relative to our counts historically," Commerce Secretary Donald Evans said last month. "We have the lowest undercount in history by far. The undercount was slightly more than 1 percent, which is a remarkable achievement."

    That modest error rate means at least 3-million people were missed. Some of these errors occurred over geographic areas large enough to eliminate entire communities. Like Belleair Shore.

    "The fact that an area is missed is not so unusual," said University of Florida professor Stan Smith, director of the population studies program. "What's unusual is it constitutes an entire town."

    One of three things probably happened to Belleair Shore, said Bob Rinaldi, manager of the Census Bureau's Count Question Resolution program.

    The census could have the town's boundaries wrong.

    Or the census could have the boundaries right but mistakenly assigned the houses to another geographic area. In Belleair Shore's case, that would be easy to do. Directly across the street is Belleair Beach.

    Or perhaps the town's census forms "somehow didn't get processed," Rinaldi said. Regardless of the cause, the Census Bureau will fix the problem if the town challenges the count, Rinaldi said.

    Population counts do make a difference for municipalities when it comes to getting money from the state. Florida disperses money to communities based on the number of people living there.

    In Belleair Shore, state revenue sharing adds $73.38 a month to the town coffers.

    "It's very unfair," said longtime resident Mary Grizzle, a former state legislator. "We want to be counted."

    Still, Grizzle added, worse things could happen in Belleair Shore: "It's better than having coffee and getting arrested on the beach."

    - Information from Scripps Howard News Service and Times files was used in this report.

    Town of Belleair Shore

    Incorporated 1955

    Town has 51 homes, no businesses

    Value of all homes: $48-million

    Town has no public facilities

    1990 census population: 60

    2000 census population: 0

    Registered voters: 84

    Sources: Pinellas Supervisor of Elections and Property Appraiser offices, town officials

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