Harrisonburg, the Friendly Micropolitan Area?

Several metropolitan statistical areas in Virginia could lose that designation under a recent proposal by the federal government. Map from the Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s note: this story was updated on 3/16 to include comment from Rep. Ben Cline.

By Eric Gorton, contributor

A proposal by the federal government to redefine the population criteria for what constitutes a metropolitan statistical area has the attention of Harrisonburg City officials, but they’re not ready to offer an opinion.

“We’re still trying to find out exactly what that means for our city,” spokesman Mike Parks said in a telephone interview. “I’m sure cities across the country are doing the same thing. We’re in the information-seeking phase.”

The Associated Press reported that the proposal, if passed, would require a metro area to have at least 100,000 people in its core city to count as an MSA, double the 50,000-person threshold that has been in place for the past 70 years. Cities formerly designated as metros with core populations between 50,000 and 100,000 people, would be reclassified as “micropolitan” statistical areas instead.

Harrisonburg’s population is about 54,000, according to the Harrisonburg Economic Development website. Rockingham County, with a population just less than 80,000, also is part of the Harrisonburg Metropolitan Statistical area, bringing the total population of the area to almost 134,000.

According to the AP, 144 cities across the country could be downgraded from metros to micropolitan areas. While Harrisonburg officials aren’t ready to voice their thoughts, officials in other cities are concerned such a change could eventually lead to changes in federal funding levels.

Several housing, transportation and Medicare reimbursement programs are tied to communities being metropolitan statistical areas, the AP story notes.

“I won’t lie. We would be dismayed to see our MSA designation go away. We aren’t a suburb of any other, larger city in the area, so this is very much part of our community’s identity,” Patrick Rollens, a spokesman for Corvallis, Oregon, told the AP. “Losing the designation would also have potentially adverse impacts on recruitment for local businesses, as well as Oregon State University.”

Corvallis is the county seat for Benton County and the city and county have a combined population of 93,000, according to a story in the Corvallis Gazette-Times. It is home to Oregon State University, a land-grant research university with about 26,000 undergraduates.

Nancy Potok, a former chief statistician of the Office of Management and Budget who helped develop the new recommendations, acknowledged to the AP that officials in some cities will be upset with the changes because they believe it could hurt efforts to lure jobs or companies to their communities.

“There are winners and losers when you change these designations,” Potok said. “A typical complaint comes from economic development when you are trying to attract investments. You want to say you are part of a dynamic MSA. There’s a perception associated with it. If your area gets dumped out of an MSA, then you feel disadvantaged.”

Parks said Harrisonburg officials have discussed the matter and won’t be commenting until they have more information.

“Things like this come and go,” he said. “When we hear things being discussed at the federal level that may have an impact on us … We want to make sure that we are 100% confident that we know all the information. We’re not to the point yet where we’re saying this is something that we’re concerned about or that we’re not concerned about.”

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Ben Cline (R), whose district includes Harrisonburg, joined about 50 other members of Congress in signing a letter opposing the proposed change to the definition of metropolitan area.

“After hearing from local officials, I have serious concerns regarding the federal government’s proposal to redefine the population criteria for metropolitan statistical areas,” Cline said, in a statement provided by his office. “This change could negatively impact federal funding for cities like Harrisonburg and Staunton, and I recently joined my colleagues in writing to the Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget to express my concerns. This proposed change is arbitrary, and I call on the Biden Administration to reconsider this potential decision.”

In addition to Harrisonburg, other regional metro areas that stand to lose that status under the proposed changes are Staunton, Charlottesville, Winchester and Blacksburg.

MSAs have been defined by the Office of Management and Budget since June 1951, “for use in Federal statistical activities.”

The agency states in an annual bulletin that the “classification is intended to provide nationally consistent delineations for collecting, tabulating, and publishing Federal statistics for a set of geographic areas. . . . (they) are not designed to serve as a general purpose geographic framework for nonstatistical activities, and they may or may not be suitable for use in program funding formulas.”

The recommendation to change the population criteria comes from the Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Area Standards Review Committee to the Office of Management and Budget. It was published Jan. 19 in the Federal Register. A 60-day comment period ends Friday.

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