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  November 18, 2002

Population Geographer Studies
Emerging Metropolitan Areas
By Allison Thompson

If you've moved between states in the past 30 years, chances are Alex Vias knows about it.

A population geographer and one of two new faculty members in the department of geography, Vias studies migration patterns around the country.

A current research project examines the economies and growth patterns of "micropolitan" areas, which are county-level geographic units.

Image: Alex Vias
Alex Vias, an assistant professor, who specializes in population geography.

Photo by Shannon McAvoy

In the article "Economic structure and socioeconomic change in America's micropolitan areas, 1970-1997," published in the summer 2002 issue of The Social Science Journal, Vias and his co-authors find that such areas exhibit many of the broad changes that are a hallmark of economic restructuring in all regions of the country.

"Micropolitan areas are losing employment in the primary sectors, gaining employment in the service and trade sectors, and are increasingly moving to more diverse economic bases," the authors write.

The researchers define micropolitan areas, which are sometimes called emerging metropolitan areas, as county-level units with a total population of more than 40,000 and a central city with a population exceeding 15,000. Independent cities of at least 15 square miles that have a population of at least 15,000 are also defined as micropolitan areas.

According to the researchers, there are 219 micropolitan areas around the country, with most of them having fewer than 100,000 residents. Recognizing the significance of these intermediate-size counties, the Census Bureau will soon release a new classification of counties that includes micropolitan areas, using a slightly different definition.

"In some cases, micropolitan areas are far removed from any current metropolitan area," the authors write. "In most instances, however, micropolitan areas are located near metropolitan areas, but are large and significant enough to stand on their own; that is, they do not simply represent a spillover from nearby major metropolitan centers."

During the past three decades, the number of Americans living in micropolitan areas has ranged between 5 percent and 7 percent of the total population. Vias and his colleagues theorize that micropolitan areas are attractive to people who are tired of large inner cities and disenchanted with the problems associated with nearby suburban areas.

"For many Americans, micropolitan areas represent a nice compromise between urban and rural living," the authors write. "In a micropolitan setting, a small-town life style with less traffic and crime is still possible. Often, but not always, what makes many micropolitan areas especially attractive is their relative proximity to major cities, so residents need not forgo all of the cultural, economic, and social benefits that can still only be found in very large urban centers."

Academics are also turning their attention to them because many of the complex social, demographic, geographic and economic changes taking place across the country are manifested in micropolitan areas.

Vias and his colleagues examined population and employment data for the 219 areas from 1970 through 1997. The data were used to create classifications of the areas at four points - 1970, 1980, 1990 and 1997 - based on their functional specialization.

At the end of the 27-year period, several industries had obviously suffered serious decline, while others were surging. The researchers found that the number of micropolitan areas with mining centers declined from 14 in 1970 to five in 1997, and the number of areas with agricultural bases dropped from 20 to five. The number of manufacturing centers and service and trade communities remained fairly constant during the period, while the number of micropolitan areas falling into the diversified category rose from 37 to 91.

The researchers next used the classifications to analyze how economic specialization corresponds to regional growth and change. According to their work, the classifications help explain different growth rates throughout the 27-year time period and highlight differences with other nonmetropolitan areas as well.

"Compared to nonmetropolitan counties as a whole, micropolitan areas were similar in that service and trade type counties have been the fasting growing type of counties, even during the broad downturn of the 1980s," the authors write. "On the other hand, while manufacturing has not played a major role in driving growth, it has a stronger presence in micropolitan areas than in the more rural nonmetropolitan areas."

Early next year, Vias will turn his research attention to the impact of so-called "big box" stores on the well-being of rural communities. The work, supported by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, grew out of Vias' continuing research on changes in the retail sector of rural areas.

Preliminary findings show that it is difficult to generalize the nature and impact of retail restructuring in rural America. Vias notes, for example, that despite public perception, the arrival of big box stores in a community doesn't always lead to the decline of smaller competitors.

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