Officials are eager for census numbers

New data critical for business, government

March 18, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Like students anxious to see the results of a test, Howard County government officials, business owners and activists are impatiently waiting for the curtain to open on results of Census 2000.

Some local statistics - population, race and the number of children under 18 - are expected this week. More will come later, in spurts.

It might seem like information to interest only the policy wonks, but it is crucial for people in a wide variety of fields - from marketers who need an accurate snapshot of the community to agency workers trying to determine whether new services are called for.

Strewn through pages of census statistics will be answers to questions of all kinds, from the economic status of women to the percentage of residents who don't speak English.

"We are dying to see the census data," said Phyllis Madachy, administrator of the county Office on Aging, which also does its own research. "We want to know where people are, we want to know in what parts of the county are the oldest people, we want to know where the old housing stock is. There are many, many ways in which we want to use this data."

Said Manus J. O'Donnell, director of the county's Department of Citizen Services: "We can better target the right service to where that need is."

Victoria Goodman, who runs the county's public information office, wonders whether the census numbers will tell her to change the way government communicates. The county has a limited number of brochures in languages other than English, and maybe that's not enough anymore, she said.

She expects the data will show increased diversity in Howard.

"It's something we'll have to look very closely at," said Goodman, whose office produced multi-lingual public service announcements about the census last year.

Others will pore over the numbers to see how well Howard hangs on to its residents - not as homeowners but as employees.

Richard W. Story, chief executive officer of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, hopes the census results show a greater percentage of people who live and work in the county.

When the census was taken in 1990, nearly two-thirds of Howard's residents had jobs elsewhere.

"The commuting patterns are something we're really looking at," he said. "Our companies are now competing against each other for a finite number of employees."

Lack of workers, more than anything else, is what limits business growth in the county, Story said.

Businesses, meanwhile, expect the census numbers to help them in their drive to expand.

"We haven't really had fresh data in a decade," said Roger Caplan, president of the Caplan Group, an Ellicott City advertising agency that uses demographic information as a matter of course. "We have guesses from a lot of different sources. ... We've known that we've had a tremendous population explosion in the past 10 years, but we don't know what that looks like."

Columbia's developer, the Rouse Co., uses census numbers to "recalibrate" its projections, said Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president. Officials with the company - which develops retail centers and office space nationwide - try to predict trends.

"The census numbers are a landmark event," Scavo said. "It sets the tone about the future."

But not everyone is counting the days until the release of the numbers. Census data usually don't offer any new findings for Howard Community College, which gets demographic information regularly from the county, the public schools and the state.

"We don't have to wait every 10 years," said Zoe Irvin, HCC's executive director of planning, research and organizational development.

"You just can't wait that long," Irvin said. "You need to have this information every year."

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