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Census sends a wake-up call <br> Region's continued population decline risks more than second-city status

It's not really a competition -- but it is important. Recent figures showing that the Rochester area is gaining on Buffalo in population offers one more reason for residents of this region to fill out the 2010 U.S. Census cards that have been showing up in mailboxes for the past couple of weeks.

Oh, and it's the law.

The latest census estimates of population, which stand to be confirmed or refuted by the "hard count" taken every 10 years, hold no good news for the metro areas of either Buffalo or Rochester -- both are losing population, but Rochester is losing its residents more slowly.

During the past decade, the Census Bureau estimates, the gap between New York's second- and third-largest cities has narrowed to about 88,000 people. The Buffalo Niagara region, which encompasses both Erie and Niagara counties, ranks as the 50th largest in the nation at about 1.2 million people, while the Rochester region, which covers five counties, ranks 51st at 1.03 million.

The bottom line for both, though, is that in-migration is driven largely by jobs, and both regions are struggling with that. Both Buffalo and Rochester are home to quality, higher institutions of learning but often have a difficult time keeping students from moving to places like North Carolina. The Rochester area does have Eastman Kodak Co., Xerox and Bausch & Lomb but those industries have been hard-hit for the past several years with job losses and increasing competition from a global marketplace. Bethlehem Steel in Buffalo had its own dramatic swan song back in the 1980s.

But the declining population numbers that follow those kinds of losses exact their own price. Census figures are used not just to determine political representation, and therefore clout in Albany and Washington, but also to calculate the allocation of dollars and benefits distributed through government programs. This latest information from the Census Bureau, which conducts annual estimates of state, county and city populations, is a wake-up call.

In short, lower numbers hurt -- and this region can ill afford to be undercounted.

Regions across the nation should be concerned about whether they are properly counted, but that concern should be especially acute in the Buffalo Niagara region, which includes the third-poorest big city in the nation and can hardly afford to lose out on a dime.

There is a ray of hope, of sorts, in the recent figures showing that the rate of population losses in this region during the past two years has slowed considerably since the middle part of the decade. Niagara County has been pulling its weight in that department with small gains. It could be that the rest of the country is doing so poorly in jobs and the housing market -- or, as Erie County Executive Chris Collins speculated, this area is experiencing something of a renaissance. Whatever the reason, the Buffalo Niagara region has been served notice. And there is something the residents of this region can do about it: Return the census form.

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