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Urban status may aid region


We have finally arrived.

Jefferson County has joined the 85 percent of the U.S. population that lives in a Metropolitan Statistical Area, which could mean major changes to how federal housing funding is distributed and how retailers and manufacturers evaluate the area for locating new stores or factories.

With little fanfare, the White House Office of Management and Budget released Bulletin No. 13-01 declaring the Watertown-Fort Drum urbanized area an MSA on Feb. 28, several months before county officials expected the announcement to be made.

No official notice was given and the county Planning Department stumbled upon the bulletin while conducting other research, according to county planner Donald A. Canfield.

County and city officials have been scrambling in recent months to understand the designation’s implications after the U.S. Census Bureau declared the Watertown-Fort Drum region an urbanized area in October.

The urbanized area designation has already brought consequential changes to transportation and environmental policy with the federally mandated creation of a Metropolitan Planning Organization and implementation of separate municipal storm sewer system permits in the urbanized area and surrounding communities.

A blob-like formation created by a computer program, the urbanized area includes the city of Watertown, Fort Drum and parts of Dexter, LeRay and Carthage. It has a combined population of 57,840.

The MSA designation, which was prompted by the urbanized area designation, is a purely statistical classification and extends to the borders of Jefferson County. Its principal cities are Watertown and Fort Drum.

“It’s not unusual for a military installation to be listed as a principal city,” Mr. Canfield said. “Any jurisdiction with a population over 10,000 can be a principal city.”

Fort Polk and Fort Knox have also been listed as principal cities in other MSAs.

“From an operational standpoint, the MSA is not as impactful as the MPO or MS4 triggered by the urbanized area designation,” Mr. Canfield said. “Though it may have some impact on Housing and Urban Development funding through the Community Development Block Grant program.”

The biggest change would affect the city, which will likely become an “entitlement community” under CDBG, according to Kenneth A. Mix, city planning and development coordinator.

For the last 30 years, the city has been eligible to enter a competitive marketplace for federal money under CDBG’s small cities program. In applying for money, the city has been “fairly successful,” Mr. Mix said, garnering grants “25 times or more.”

A typical limit on a grant from the CDBG small cities program is $400,000.

Becoming an entitlement community “completely changes how we receive the funding and will probably make a difference in how much we get.”

Instead of telling the city to reapply each year, HUD will calculate and automatically award the grant based on a standing plan written by the city that will be on file with the department.

The amount “will likely be more than $400,000,” Mr. Mix said.

Receiving the designation may also help increase the area’s visibility for businesses looking to take advantage of a larger workforce and growing marketplace.

“If you are a company who manufactures, we are in a radius of 10 or more MSAs. We are within 250 miles of Montreal and Toronto. You can plunk yourself down in that grouping,” said Donald C. Alexander, CEO of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency.

There are 388 MSAs in the United States and Puerto Rico with 17 in New York state, including Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton, Ithaca and Buffalo.

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