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Fewer, yet farther

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton metropolitan area lost nearly 14,000 residents between 1990 and 2000.
/ Source: The Standard-Speaker

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton metropolitan area lost nearly 14,000 residents between 1990 and 2000. On April 1, 2000, the three-city region - what the U.S. Census Bureau refers to as a "metropolitan area," or MA - had 624,776 residents, a decline of 13,690 from April 1, 1990.

But at the same time the MA was declining in population, it was sprawling.

This paradox - a declining population but sprawling infrastructure - flies in the face of the traditional thinking of what "sprawl" is and where it's occurring.

Farmland, forested properties and other types of open space are being built on and paved over as the northeastern Pennsylvania MA shrinks yet sprawls.

The paradox is so evident in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre/Hazleton MA that the author of Why Shrinking Cities Sprawl, Alison Wellner, has ranked it No. 3 among 25 metropolitan areas "most likely to shrink and sprawl."

Many of the cities included in the list lay in that part of the country demographers once referred to as the "Rust Belt": Johnstown, Pa. (No. 2); Sharon, Pa., Utica-Rome, N.Y., Steubenville, Ohio, and Weirton, W.Va., tied for No. 4; Charleston, W.Va., No. 7; Muncie, Ind., No. 10, Wheeling, W.Va., No. 11; Lima, Ohio, No. 12; Altoona, Pa., Binghamton, N.Y., and Cumberland, Md., tied for No. 18; and Youngstown, Ohio, No. 25.

"It may sound paradoxical, but in a 'thinning metropolis' like Rochester, N.Y., land development is outpacing population growth as residents flee urban centers in search of better housing - and take their tax money with them," Wellner wrote in the May-June issue of Sierra magazine.

"The cash-strapped downtown areas and inner-ring suburbs can't compete with outlying areas for developers' dollars, creating a hard-to-break cycle."

Tim Ference, who chairs the borough planning commission in Conyngham, attributes the process of shrinking and sprawling to a phenomenon known as "out-migration."

It's the "old concentric circle concept," he said.

As the original center of housing ages, another circle of development occurs outside that first circle. Then that second circle ages and people flee outward into a third circle.

In the Hazleton area, "we're already past the first level of suburban development . . . The ring keeps expanding," Ference said.

It's also a "generational thing," he said.

"The older generation is stable, but their kids decide, 'Well, if I have to stay here, I want to live (over there), and so they go" from Hazleton into Butler and Sugarloaf townships. "And they take their taxes with them."

Wellner, who also serves as editor-at-large for American Demographics magazine, used census data to back up her argument.

"Census 2000 provides population counts and growth rates over the past decade for every metropolitan area in the United States," Wellner said.

"By examining where the population has grown the most, exerting pressure on an area's existing resources, and where it's shrinking - creating voracious appetites for the tax dollars brought by new development - Census data provides one way to predict where sprawl will start to show itself next," Wellner noted.

"Because population growth is just one factor that can create sprawl, it's necessary to combine Census figures with data about how a metropolitan area uses land.

"An area that is growing rapidly, and has used more land than its population demands, is considered to be a sprawl risk. So is an area that is declining rapidly, but still using more land than its population demands," Wellner said.

Wellner said she based her rankings of the metro areas most likely to shrink and sprawl on four criteria: population loss or gain, density, density increase, and increase in urbanized land use.

"While other areas may experience sprawl, the ones listed are the most at risk over the next decade if their population and land-use trends continue unchanged," she said.

The Hazleton of today "is the result of sprawl," Mayor Louis Barletta said.

He found Wellner's findings interesting "because I actually talked about this when I first came into office," Barletta noted.

And "sprawl is the single greatest threat working against the preservation of our towns and cities," the mayor added.

One misunderstanding about sprawl is that it happens only around cities experiencing population growth, Barletta said.

But in the case of the northeastern Pennsylvania MA - and others on Wellner's list - sprawl has taken place because of other reasons, principally the drive for "out-migration."

Sprawl has "really served to relocate homes and businesses from one place to another, leaving (behind) devalued property, physical distress and the slow, simmering decay of a city's core," Barletta said.

The mayor said his administration has attacked the decay of inner Hazleton through the Redevelopment Authority - "knocking down" abandoned and blighted buildings in an effort to bring residential settings back into the city's core.

The Pine Street redevelopment project, which took another leap forward this month with the razing of an old factory building on the corner of North Pine and Green streets, is an example of what can be done, the mayor said.

Barletta hopes to bring residential housing to the same area, with the refurbished Pine Street Playground as one drawing card.

Putting residential buildings back into downtown - where people can live close to their workplaces - is the goal.

And Barletta said the state government-sponsored Keystone Opportunity Zone program is one way to attract businesses into empty buildings in the heart of the city, "such as the Markle."

"These are all efforts to counteract urban sprawl."

In the end, though, Hazleton is not unique in the problems it faces because of "out-migration" and sprawl development, he noted.

Hazleton developers Charles Palermo and George Hayden Jr., through their Hazleton Development Co., are converting the Markle into the home for an upscale hotel, restaurants and shops.

But convincing developers to reinvest in older, inner-city locales is among the many challenges facing cities that are both shrinking AND sprawling, Wellner said.

"The cash-strapped downtown areas and inner-ring suburbs can't compete with outlying areas for developers' dollars, creating a hard-to-break cycle," Wellner wrote in Sierra.

"A thinning metropolis has a different suburban character. It's a house here and a house there," Rolf Pendall, a professor of city and regional planning at Cornell University, told the magazine.

"The growth is so incremental, you don't even notice it, but it ends up even more spread out."

Sprawl has been occurring in Pennsylvania since the 1950s, even as the state's population stagnated and then declined, Alene N. Case of the Luzerne County-based North Branch Land Trust noted.

"In those years, between 1950 and 1995, the population of the state increased 13 percent (while) the amount of land used for development increased 80 percent," Case said.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resources Inventory, which was revised in 2000, show Pennsylvania is now ranked fifth in the nation for change in acreage of total non-federal land developed between 1992 and 1997.

Only Texas, Georgia, Florida and California rank higher.

"Yet, according to preliminary U.S. Census figures released in December, Pennsylvania had a population increase of only 3.4 percent from 1990 to 2000," Wendy Foster of the anti-sprawl organization 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania said.

That ranks Pennsylvania 48th for percentage change in population.

"The problem: Pennsylvania is one of the slowest growing states in terms of population, but we develop land at a rate similar to states, such as Florida, Georgia and Texas, which are experiencing fast-paced population increases," Foster said.