Census could tie Larimer cities to Denver MSA

Northern Colorado Business Report

When census numbers emerge each decade from the United States government, public policy can really change.

And the face of Northern Colorado could change as boundaries for some of the most important political divisions on the map — the metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs — are revised to reflect the new count.

The designations govern how federal housing and transportation dollars, among other benefits, flow to cities and regions.

One possibility is that the numbers will call for pulling Fort Collins and Loveland, now a separate MSA, into a broader one that includes metro-Denver, Boulder and Greeley.

“Larimer County could be counted in with Denver,” Colorado Demographer Jim Weskott said.

Federal dollars are allocated depending on whether cities and towns are growing or shrinking, where people work and whether they’re commuting.

Many places have waited anxiously for the MSA designation that means a county includes a city — for which the MSA is named — with at least 50,000 people. For example, Fort Collins became an MSA in 1980, and Loveland was added in 1990, said Ken Waido, Fort Collins’ chief planner.

Oddly, despite the strong connections between Larimer and Weld counties, Weld is part of an even larger community, with an extra letter in the acronym – the Denver CMSA, the C for “consolidated.” Besides the five counties in metro Denver, Boulder and Weld are included in the Denver CMSA mainly because of commuting patterns.

“Commuting is always an important criteria,´ said Jerry O’Donnell, Census Bureau public information officer.

But not everyone agrees commuting data should be used. Some Northern Colorado observers say economic clusters and social or cultural connections could be used instead to create a more accurate picture.

Some local officials say Weld and Larimer counties should be grouped together as an MSA. But others say when the federal government revises MSAs in 2003 that probably won’t happen. If anything, they say, Larimer County could become part of the Denver CMSA.

The path to MSA designation weaves through a tangle of federal red tape. The Census Bureau provides data to the White House Office of Management and Budget, O’Donnell said. Then, the OMB uses national standards to designate MSAs.

“Adjacent counties could be included if at least 50 percent of the employed workers commute to the central county,” he said. “The main purpose is to separate out those counties that are metropolitan in character. They’re more densely populated.”

The latest estimates for the Denver CMSA in 1999, for instance, showed about 2.4 million people. Some 273, 000 were in the Boulder-Longmont area. The Greeley area had 165,000, while the Denver MSA had 1.9 million.

By comparison, the estimates for the Fort Collins-Loveland MSA showed a population of almost 237,000.

The issue about where the Greeley MSA belongs stems in part from a difference between Greeley and southern Weld County. “Greeley relates more to Fort Collins than Denver,” Waido said. “But southwest Weld County relates to Denver.”

Terrie McKellar, a community development specialist for the city of Greeley, said the Greeley MSA should be grouped with Fort Collins and Loveland.

“We share more in common,” she said. Governmental and other agencies are working together on housing issues, air quality and transportation, she said. The same cannot be said of the relationship with counties in metro Denver.

Stephan Weiler, a regional economist at Colorado State University, has noticed something similar. While southern Weld County commutes, “the rest is the biggest agriculture community in the state,” he said. “That doesn’t seem to jibe with the Denver MSA.”

Many observers recognize the increasing amount of southbound traffic. “The commuting that has been taking place suggests a relationship between the two,” Weskott said. “The relationship with Greeley and Denver is still interesting.”

The Greeley MSA will not be grouped with Fort Collins-Loveland for just that reason, said Ron Klaphake, president of the Greeley-Weld Economic Development Action Partnership.

“When you look at the overall county, the largest number of commuters is to the Denver and Boulder areas,” he said. “Weld County is going to continue to be a part of the Denver CMSA.”

Instead, it might be that Larimer County would be pulled bureaucratically southward, he said.

“If Larimer County were in it, it would beef up the Denver CMSA on an international marketing level,” he said.

Weiler believes such a scenario would be possible but unlikely for now. “Fort Collins has its own basic industries. It exports to the outside world and brings income in,” he said, adding Denver has a separate economy.