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Published September 29 2010

Census figures draw skepticism after Fargo's population declines

At a glance, results from the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey might seem like bad news for Fargo.

But the annual assessment doesn’t reflect the whole picture, local officials say.

The 2009 survey released in part on Tuesday shows Fargo’s estimated population declined by about 2,300, falling from about 97,800 to about 95,500 since the 2008 survey.

City officials reacted with surprise and a level of skepticism at hearing the survey’s findings – considering the substantial growth Fargo has seen, especially in its southside neighborhoods.

“Anecdotally, that would surprise me,” Fargo Senior Planner Jim Hinderaker said of the reported population decrease. “We’ve definitely had more construction that would lead me to believe that we hadn’t declined.”

Richard Rathge, the director of the North Dakota State Census Data Center, said the problem is likely not the 2009 figure.

“The 2008 figure was higher than what it should have been,” he said. “If you contrast this year with last year, then you would be concluding that Fargo actually lost population, and I don’t think that’s true.”

Rathge said other annual population data collected by the Census Bureau shows Fargo has steadily grown in population in recent years, averaging about 1 percent a year.

So, the 2009 survey is likely accurate in reflecting Fargo’s estimated population as 95,500, but not as a mark of decline from previous years, he said.

The population data showing steady growth comes from existing public records, Rathge said, while the American Community Survey is only a sampling of communities.

“Anytime you take a sample, there’s an error associated with it,” he said. “What’s likely to have happened in 2008 is they may have been sampling in a greater proportion in an area of Fargo that was growing relatively fast, and then in 2009, they may have been sampling heavier at a different location.”

“So all of a sudden, the numbers would have fallen,” he said.

The Census Bureau describes its annual survey as being only a general query of population characteristics, such as income, education and housing.

“Census figures are taken with a grain of salt,” said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, echoing past statements from city officials who said the bureau’s data has underestimated Fargo’s growth.

“With the new additions and the people moving in and so forth, to say there was a decrease was not the case,” Walaker said upon hearing the survey’s results for Fargo.

Meanwhile, the 2009 survey showed Cass County’s estimated population increased over the year from about 139,900 to about 143,300. North Dakota also saw growth, increasing by about 5,300 people to an estimated population of 646,800.

The data released Tuesday only included information for communities with populations of 65,000 or more. No data is available yet for other North Dakota cities or for Moorhead.

The bureau will release survey data in December and January covering smaller geographic areas.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541