With southern cities such as Charlotte, N.C., and Fort Worth, Texas, growing into the top 20, Milwaukee's population loss pushed it from the 19th largest U.S. city in 2003 to the 22nd in 2004, reflecting the oft-cited exodus of Northerners to the South.
According to the annual figures, which estimate population each July, Milwaukee's population in 2004 was 583,624, down nearly 3,600 residents from the same time in 2003.
But Mayor Tom Barrett and state demographers said they are leery of the census figures, which are estimates, and note that state calculations have a history of being more accurate.
Last year, for example, the Census Bureau pegged Milwaukee's 2003 population at about 587,000. The state estimate, conducted by the Wisconsin Department of Administration, floated more around 595,000.
For 2004, the state has unofficially projected Milwaukee's population to be about 593,500, state demographer David Egan-Robertson said. But that's still not high enough to crack the list of the top 20 cities.
Regardless of the numbers, Barrett said Wednesday that he was optimistic about Milwaukee's growth and that he has seen more people moving into Milwaukee through new condos and other urban developments.
"We live in the most livable large city in the U.S.," he said. "The region has to sell itself on its strengths."
Population shifts to suburbs
Since 1960, census figures have shown Milwaukee's urban population slowly leaking away while the suburban metro area has grown. According to some experts, federal funding, the ability to attract business and Milwaukee's image as a vibrant urban hub could all suffer if the urban population continues to decline.
"Yeah, it's an issue to drop out of the top 20," said Tim Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. "There's more than bragging rights at stake here."
Among the many things that hinge at least partially on population are some federal funding formulas, including money for some health care and transportation programs. Because Milwaukee's population has dropped by only several thousand this year, Barrett said Wednesday that he wasn't concerned about losing federal money.
Business, too, has a stake in population growth. However, local and national experts say Milwaukee as a central city is far less important to attracting and retaining business as a growing metropolitan area - another level where Milwaukee has struggled. Census figures released in April show that the five-county metropolitan area had a net gain of 3,627 people, a scant 0.2%.
"From a hard-headed economic standpoint, it's the metropolitan area that really counts," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution and a research professor at the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan. "It's not the city of Milwaukee competing with the city of Phoenix or the city of Atlanta, but the metropolitan area."
Michel Guillot, a demographer and sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, agreed. He said a city's population is in some respects artificial - the result of where public officials drew boundaries.
Compared with other cities, Milwaukee long has had a relatively large population compared with its metropolitan area.
The city itself, for example, is bigger than the cities of Atlanta, Boston, Miami, Washington and Seattle, all of which anchor metropolitan areas two to three times larger than Milwaukee's.
One reason Milwaukee has maintained a relatively large city population is the consolidation in the 1950s with the former Town of Granville - now the far northwest side.
The consolidation under then-Mayor Frank P. Zeidler increased Milwaukee's geographic area by 30%, providing room for growth while many other industrial cities were hemmed in by their suburbs.
El Paso, Texas, which slipped ahead of Milwaukee, also has benefited from geography. The west Texas city spreads over 247 square miles, an area 2 1/2 times the size of Milwaukee.
While El Paso's city population has passed Milwaukee's, its metropolitan area, at just over 700,000, is less than half as large.
Metro area sees slow growth
According to Frey, Milwaukee's metro population growth in recent years has sat near the bottom of the country's 43 largest metropolitan areas. That would remain true even if the city's growth had held steady since 2000, according to Frey's data.
For the 2000 to 2004 period, metro Milwaukee's population increased by 1%, according to Frey's data. Among all areas with a population of at least 1.5 million, that increase ranked 38th, ahead of only Detroit, San Jose, Calif., Cleveland, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.
That stagnant growth is significant, said Sammis B. White, a professor of urban planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and director of its Center for Workforce Development.
"It's just harder for the local economy to be healthy when you have a central city that is losing population," White said. "That means in order for the metro area as a market to grow, the suburbs must grow even faster to compensate for losses at the center."
Milwaukee's population bleed has mirrored those in dozens of other urban areas across the country, as experts say families leave big cities in search of better schools, warmer climates and more reasonably priced homes.
Growth going South
According to the census estimates, all of the 10 fastest-growing cities since 2000 are in southern and southwestern states such as California, Arizona and Florida. .
In contrast, many shrinking cities are in the North. Detroit, Cincinnati and Cleveland are among those that shrank the most. Milwaukee has lost about 2.2% of its population - about 13,350 people - since 2000, according to census estimates.
"The pattern of historical migration is one of people moving from the Frost Belt to the Sun Belt," said William Gayk, director of the Center for Demographic Research in Fullerton, Calif.
Gayk said Latino migration has driven central city revitalization in many large cities, especially as more families move to the suburbs. Mixed-use developments and upscale condos have also helped lure residents downtown, he said, but immigrants have done more to drive central city growth.
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