Salina, Kansas, Counts On Its Census Tally To Grow

fromKPR

When it comes to the Census, 50,000 appears to be a magic number. That's the number of residents that many restaurant chains and other businesses look for when deciding where to locate. It's also the population level that makes it easier for a community to qualify for federal funding to support infrastructure projects like streets, water systems and parks. That's why Salina, Kansas, is making sure all of its citizens are counted.

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What the census can help with is the federal funding that helps build everything from public parks to water lines. For small and mid-sized communities, that means there's a lot riding on this year's census, which is why officials in Salina, Kansas are taking some extraordinary steps to make sure all of their residents are counted. Kansas Public radio's Bryan Thompson reports.

BRYAN THOMPSON: The 2000 census listed the central Kansas town of Salina as having a population of 45,679. That's not quite enough to suit civic leaders here. They think a lot of people were missed in that headcount and they don't want that to happen again.

(Soundbite of music festival)

THOMPSON: To build enthusiasm for the census, the community just held the 2010 We Count Music Fest at Salina's convention hall. Seventeen bands from all over the area performed at the free event. The Wii theme included a Nintendo Wii tournament, with the winners taking home new game decks. The smaller kids flocked to inflatable slides.

Organizers say the music fest drew about a thousand people. They hope that if everyone is counted, Salina's population will officially top 50,000, which many consider to be a magic number. Salina area Chamber of Commerce president Dennis Lauver says it's all about economic development.

Mr. DENNS LAUVER (Salina Area Chamber of Commerce): Employers typically take a look at certain benchmarks to the size of a community that they would consider locating a new restaurant or a new retail business or a new factory.

THOMPSON: A population of 50,000 is also the sweet spot for some types of federal funding. Andy Martin, who heads the United Way in Salina, says smaller communities have to compete against each other for a share of federal funding for projects like streets, waterlines, and parks.

But once a city's population reaches 50,000, some funding becomes automatic.

Mr. ANDY MARTIN (United Way): It would just be a given that we would receive 250 to 300 thousand dollars a year in money that's allocated to the states for helping low and moderate income neighborhoods.

THOMPSON: So Martin teamed up with local government and business leaders more than a year ago to try to make sure that this time everyone in Salina would be counted. They enlisted more than 500 volunteers to blanket the community with signs and messages about the census. Volunteer Ted Zerger(ph) spent three weekends hanging reminders on hundreds of doors in the city's poorest neighborhood. He says one woman he encountered there succinctly summed up the importance of the census.

Mr. TED ZERGER (Census Volunteer): And she said, well, the goods and services go where the people are, and if they don't know we're here, you know, we've got to let them know we're here.

THOMPSON: Zerger says the response was overwhelmingly positive. Still, there are some people here, like Doug Greer(ph), who are not exactly census friendly.

Mr. DOUG GREER: I think it's alright for them to want to know how many people lives in your house, but as far as the rest of it, I don't think it's any of their business.

THOMPSON: Greer sent in his census form, but only answered the first of ten questions. What he may not realize is that he's likely to find a census enumerator on his doorstep soon asking him the other nine questions. Salina city manager Jason Gage says Salina's drive to promote the census is not meant to overstate the city's population but to get an accurate count.

Mr. JASON GAGE (Salina City Manager): Why should we report 48,000 if we really have 50? We're not trying to ask people fill it out twice. We're just saying if you're here, let's make sure you get counted and let's get our share of that and put it into key things that make us a better community.

THOMPSON: The effort seems to be paying off. While the national average for returned Census forms at this point is about 34 percent, 47 percent of Salina's households have already returned their forms.

For NPR News, I'm Bryan Thompson in Salina, Kansas.

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