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East helps the state maintain stability

| Saturday, March 10, 2001

Two decades after the collapse of heavy industry, western Pennsylvania is beginning to arrest the devastating population declines that followed.

Census 2000 figures released yesterday showed population levels in western Pennsylvania stabilizing, but population growth - and the political influence that goes with it - continued to shift east as Pennsylvania's population grew 3 percent over the last decade.

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The figures also revealed that Pennsylvania, and its western section in particular, while lagging behind the nation in racial diversity, slowly is growing more diverse. Statewide, the minority population increased from 12 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2000.

Westmoreland County registered only minimal change, going from 370,321 in 1990 to 369,993 in 2000, a loss of 328 people. Indiana County declined from 89,994 in 1990 to 89,605 in 2000.

Fayette County gained population over the decade, increasing from 145,351 to 148,644. Most of that gain occurred in Wharton Township, a mountainous residential community that is home to the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort and located minutes away from several tourist attractions.

Fayette's growth placed it with Butler County among rare western Pennsylvania counties gaining population since 1990.

Like Westmoreland and Indiana counties, Washington, Beaver and Armstrong counties all had marginal population losses between 1990 and 2000. The biggest loser was Allegheny County, where the population slipped by just over 4 percent, largely in the city of Pittsburgh.

One of the first things the new numbers - which include race and population down to the precinct level - will be used for is drawing new lines for 253 legislative and 19 congressional districts. The new congressional configuration represents a loss of two seats. Those seats were given to states that registered more growth than Pennsylvania.

State party leaders believe one congressional district will be eliminated on each side of the state in a protracted political process over the next year.

State Rep. Mike Veon, of Beaver Falls, House Minority Whip, said growth in the east almost undoubtedly means southwestern Pennsylvania will lose two seats in the 203-seat state House and one in the 50-seat state Senate.

'If we have to create a new seat for a place like Chester County - where population increased from 376,396 to 433,501 - it has to come from somewhere,' said Veon.

Although the region as a whole continued to lose population, Dr. Michael D. Irwin, an associate professor of sociology with Duquesne University's Graduate Center for Social and Public Policy Studies, said he sees a 30-year trend of decline bottoming out.

'It's pretty clear in the early '90s we were losing population at a pretty rapid rate. ... Something had to change in the post-'95 period. I think that we can reasonably expect some modest growth in coming years,' Irwin said.

Across southwestern Pennsylvania, rural townships tended to gain population at the expense of older industrial cities and boroughs.

The public policy implications are obvious, said state Sen. Allen Kukovich.

'We need to make sure municipalities and counties are able to work together to preserve as much open space and farmland as possible. And statewide policies need to move new industries into brownfields in places like Monessen, Jeannette, New Kensington and Latrobe,' the Manor Democrat said.

Robert Sechrist, a geography professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania who has consulted for the Census Bureau, also sees opportunities in what many might consider discouraging numbers.

'Growth is disruptive,' said Sechrist. 'This gives us an opportunity to clean up the region, clean up some of the acid mine drainage and return some of our streams and woodlands to their pristine state.'

Looking at the regional picture, Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Balya, chairman of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, a nine-county regional planning consortium, said Allegheny County's continued loss reinforces the need for regional transportation planning.

'I think it's important that the needs of communities outside of the city, like Cranberry Township, Murrysville, Peters Township and elsewhere be met. We can't plan for the community the way it looked 30 years ago, but the way it's going to look 30 years from now,' said Balya.

At his Duquesne University office overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, Irwin had a similar perspective. But Irwin said the city's decline is a problem that the region must face.

'Part of the reason people like to live and work in outlying areas is they also have access to good things associated with city, things like sports, entertainment and the arts. But if population of the city continues to fall, how do you have those things?' said Irwin.

Steve Segal contributed to this story.

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