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Census is more than numbers

by James Fisher

STAFF WRITER

As more and more new census figures become public every day, it can be interesting to research the sex, age and race figures for cities and towns in West Virginia. It seems almost unnecessary, however, to point out that there is a nearly even male-female ratio, that three-quarters of the state is over the age of 18 and that 95 percent of West Virginians are white.

But the census numbers do much more than just quantify the state's residents. The numbers can affect economic development, community planning and show city leaders where their town is heading.

"For instance, if you have an aging population, you have to tailor your plans for the community around that for the next 10 or 20 years, from hospitals to jobs to the types of services that are offered," said Grafton City Manager Kevin Stead. "Every age requires different kinds of services. Knowing the trends as far as aging really helps control planning and where you want to go over the next 10-20 years."

Apart from planning, seeing the census numbers and realizing a trend also can help officials make decisions in the short-term.

Jane Lew Mayor Dianne Hicks said the census showed what officials there have thought for a long time: More and more people are moving there to retire. In response, the town council is trying to do things to make the town even more pleasant to the older generation while not driving away younger folks, she said.

"I was amazed at how many people come here to retire," she said. "For this council, our goals are to make the town much cleaner and spiff it up some. We've gotten a grant for our park and we've added two walking trails. The park seems to be used by everybody, from the older folks down to the younger ones, and we've gotten some really good comments from people about the trails."

Hicks also noted that the Jane Lew area is much larger than the incorporated town itself, so the census numbers may not show the whole picture. She also would like to see the town expand to include some of the area with people who already use Jane Lew's services.

Knowing who is living in a city or town can be an invaluable tool for local government, schools and economic development officials, said Clarksburg City Manager Tom Vidovich.

"A substantial use of these numbers is that they give you trend lines and possible projections for the future," he said. "For instance, if a trend is for an increase in the Latino population, you may have the city tell the board of education that we need to provide some different services for that group, or any minority population."

Another trend that development and government officials look at is straight population. Stead noted that while the overall state population has increased since 1990, many cities' populations are decreasing.

"What that tells you is that people are moving outside the cities for various reasons," he said. "You have to look at why there's a decrease, what age range is decreasing and why they are leaving. Most West Virginia cities are aging, structurally. We just have some very old cities. There's a general trend in America where when something gets old, we seem to move out and build something new."

Staff writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com.

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