Harrisonburg to retain metropolitan designation until at least 2030

A sign on West Market Street welcomes people to the metropolis of Harrisonburg.

By Eric Gorton, senior contributor

Harrisonburg will maintain its status as a metropolitan statistical area for at least the next decade – news the city was happy to receive last week.

That’s when the U.S. Office of Management and Budget announced it would continue to classify communities with a population of at least 50,000 in the core city as an MSA.

In January, a technical advisory committee to the OMB had proposed doubling the minimum population for core cities of MSAs from 50,000 to 100,000 to keep pace with the country’s population growth. That would have reclassified Harrisonburg and 143 other cities in 45 states and Puerto Rico as micropolitan areas.

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

At stake, Harrisonburg and the other jurisdictions feared, was hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants and assistance that have been tied to the MSA designation.

“We are very pleased that the concerns of local governments such as ours were heard loud and clear and that this proposed change did not materialize,” city spokesman Mike Parks said in an email Thursday.

One of the city’s main concerns, Parks said, was that the change could impact the amount of Community Development Block Grant funding the city receives.

“Those funds have a significant, positive impact on the low-income programs, populations and neighborhoods in Harrisonburg. … The loss of that program would have far-reaching negative impacts,” he said.

Parks said the city was also concerned such a change would hurt the city’s efforts to attract business and other economic development efforts.

Chris Quinn, president of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, also had concerns with the proposed change. Like Parks, Quinn said in an email interview that an MSA is an important benchmark that helps determine federal funding and economic development success.

“Chambers across the country have been watching and communicating with each other on the topic as well as sharing their thoughts and concerns,” Quinn said.

Parks said city officials made their concerns known to U.S. Rep. Ben Cline (R), whose district includes Harrisonburg, in March. Cline was among 53 House members who wrote a letter to the OMB on March 16 protesting the proposed change. It argued that the only rationale for the recommended change — that the U.S. population had doubled since the MSA designation was created around 1950 — was “devoid of any cogent, scientific, or statistically relevant standard.”

The letter also stated that changing the designation now “would create crucial data inconsistencies” and that “losing an MSA designation could mean tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in lost federal grant money to communities already struggling to rebuild economic engines that have been damaged by our current Covid-19 crisis.”

Last week, Cline released a statement praising the OMBs decision to maintain the 50,000 criteria for determining the core city of a MSA.

“The proposal to change the population criteria for Metropolitan Statistical Areas would have hurt Sixth District localities, and I am pleased that the Office of Management and Budget acknowledged my concerns and reversed course,” Cline said. “The decision to maintain the 50,000 resident threshold is a win for the people of Harrisonburg and Staunton, and I am proud to have played a part in ensuring this arbitrary proposal did not come to fruition.”

The Staunton-Waynesboro MSA includes those two cities and Augusta County.

In its announcement that it would maintain the 50,000 population threshold, the OMB stated that statistical area standards are intended for statistical purposes only to help ensure federal agencies that classify statistics, such as unemployment numbers or gross domestic product levels, by geographic area do so consistently across government.

“Following a public comment period, the Committee submitted a revised recommendation to leave the current Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) core population threshold in place,” the announcement stated.

The OMB considers updates to the standards every 10 years to ensure their continued usefulness and relevance for statistical agencies.

“Recognizing the committee’s concern that MSA thresholds have not kept pace with population growth, OMB will work with the Standards Review Committee to conduct research and stakeholder outreach to inform the 2030 standards update,” the agency stated.

Quinn said localities need to monitor the regulatory and the rule making process heading into the 2030 review.

“Two words,” he said. “Stay engaged. That would be my advice to anyone watching this issue.”

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