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Rapid 'growth:' Armstrong County added to metro area

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

By Dan Fitzpatrick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh metropolitan area, stung by a 1.5 percent population loss during the 1990s, just gained 72,000 people.


Online map

Comparison of new and old Pittsburgh MSAs.

Starting last Friday, rural Armstrong County officially became part of Pittsburgh's "metropolitan statistical area" -- a term used by the U.S. Census Bureau to provide consistent definitions for collection of federal information.

The decision, made by the federal Office of Management and Budget, came after intense lobbying from local politicians and economic development officials.

While technical, the change in definition has great importance for the newest member of Pittsburgh's now seven-county metro area. (The other six are Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.) It means more attention and, potentially, more money.

Armstrong County Commissioner Jim Scahill estimates that grouping the county with the metro area means Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements for county hospitals should increase by perhaps as much as $10,000 a day. He also predicts marketing and tourism benefits. "This is not cosmetic," he said of the change.

While the metro area is now approximately 72,000 people larger than it was a week ago, the change is probably not enough to alter its ranking as the 21st largest in the United States, according to officials with the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, a key economic marketing agency. Complete rankings for all new metro areas will be available from the U.S. Census Bureau in a few days.

The addition of Armstrong County certainty won't make the area any younger, either. The median age in Armstrong is currently 40.4 -- a shade older than the median age of the old metropolitan area.

It also won't make the area any more lively. Armstrong County, after all, is a largely rural area that lost 1.5 percent of its population during the 1990s, the same attrition rate as the rest of the metropolitan area. "There is not a lot of payoff," said David Miller, associate dean at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

But some officials who lobbied for the Armstrong addition argue that the real benefits are less tangible. PRA President Ronnie Bryant, who recruits companies to the region, said any increase in the region's population size helps when flagging down new prospects. "The larger the pool, the better," he said.

The Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a 10-county transportation and economic development agency, yesterday said that Armstrong County's inclusion in the metro area "confirms" what the agency "has been saying all along: "That the region is bigger than previously recognized."

The Office of Management and Budget added Armstrong to the metro list because more than 25 percent of its residents commute to one of four "central" counties -- Allegheny, Beaver, Washington and Westmoreland -- a key criterion for admission.

For Scahill, who said the real commuting number is closer to 33 percent, the change is long overdue. "How can we touch Allegheny County and not be part of the central region?" asked Scahill. "We are dealing with a 1950s mentality in what was defined as, quote, the region."

The new designation is a major victory for Scahill, who has been pushing for his county's inclusion since 1992. When the 2000 census numbers came out, though, Armstrong was still not part of the metro area.

So Scahill stood up at a January meeting of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission and demanded that his fellow commissioners on the SPC board petition the federal government. "Until you figure out a way to get us into the region, why are we here?" said Scahill. "You want our time, our effort, our people, our tax dollars but you don't want us."

The rest of the commission pursued Scahill's request, with help from the PRA. These same officials are hoping eventually to roll Lawrence, Indiana and Greene counties into the new census definition, too.

The addition of Armstrong also represents a more quantitative step for the Census Bureau, which once defined regions only by their commonly-accepted boundaries but now requires new counties to show a statistical link to their urban core. Most demographic experts consider the new definition a more accurate reflection of a region's economic life.

The enlargement of the Pittsburgh area, both real and artificial, has a long and storied history.After Pittsburgh annexed the North Side in 1907, it was blocked from any further expansions, thereby limiting its size. Thus, when manufacturing spread down the Mon Valley, "local leaders tried to identify the Pittsburgh region as a whole," said Chris Briem, with the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt's Center for Social and Urban Research

"Why? The relative size of the city has always been small compared to the size of the overall region and defining a Greater Pittsburgh region we would rank higher by most economic variables compared to other areas of the country. ... The spread-out steel mills along the rivers meant we had economic activity."

The Census did not start defining the "metropolitan statistical area" until 1950. That year, the Pittsburgh metro area had four counties: Allegheny, Beaver, Washington, Westmoreland. It added Fayette in 1983 and Butler in 1993.

Now, its Armstrong's turn.

"There is always this drive to create a Greater Pittsburgh," said Carnegie Mellon University history professor Joel Tarr. For Miller, though, "the bottom line is, it can't hurt."

Dan Fitzpatrick can be reached at dfitzpatrick@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1752.

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