On Thursday, roughly 50 Arkansas cities and towns had their designations changed from "urban" to "rural" areas, the result of a criteria revision by the U.S. Census Bureau for the 2020 census.
Those cities -- including Dardanelle, Lonoke, Gravette and Elkins -- joined more than 1,100 places with 4.2 million residents that are now rural areas.
Under the old criteria, an urbanized area needed to have at least 50,000 residents. An urban cluster was defined as having at least 2,500 people, a threshold that had been around since 1910.
After the revision in 2020, the minimum population required for an area to be considered urban doubled to 5,000 people or a minimum housing unit threshold of 2,000. Originally, the Census Bureau proposed raising the threshold to 10,000 people but pulled back amid opposition. The new criteria for urban areas shift the urban-rural ratio slightly, to 79.6% and 20.4%, respectively.
The change matters because rural and urban areas often qualify for different types of federal funding for transportation, housing, health care, education and agriculture. The federal government doesn't have a standard definition of urban or rural, but the Census Bureau's definition often provides a baseline.
It is the biggest modification in decades to the definition of an urban area. The bureau adjusts the definition every decade after a census to address any changes or needs of policymakers and researchers. The bureau says it is done for statistical purposes and it has no control over how government agencies use the definitions to distribute funding.
"I would say we're optimistic that the rural change will end up being pretty neutral for the cities impacted," said Lanny Richmond, senior legal council for the Arkansas Municipal League."What we think will end up happening is those cities that are no longer urban will certainly lose certain federal funding or grant opportunities. But there's new opportunities for rural areas.
"We just did a quick search and there was a lot of rural transport and other funding opportunities, similar, but different. So until we get more information, we're not really sure what the impact will be, but we're optimistic that it will kind of be a wash."
Trae Reed, the outgoing mayor of Lonoke, hadn't been aware of the change in designation until he was asked about it Thursday.
Lonoke gained 31 people from 2010 to 2020, for a total of 4,276 people in the census.
"I would say in terms of the culture it's not going to mean anything. The community has always kind of perceived itself as rural," Reed said. "So culturally, I think it's probably more proper for the city. I'm going to guess, just from my experience as mayor, being in a rural designation is going to allow us to be eligible for more federal grant funds. If that's the case, that is good news. But you got to have somebody managing that, too. Just because you're eligible doesn't mean you necessarily have the capacity to go after all those grant funds."
Reed, who lost to Mayor-elect Wayne McGee in the election, said Lonoke needs funding help when it comes to the area's drainage system, which is connected to Grand Prairie Water.
"Lonoke is affectionately kind of known as the 'Front Porch of the Arkansas Delta,'" said Reed. "So it's a flat community. We had very little, if any, institutional knowledge on how to fix some of our drainage issues, ... just a general lack of engineering knowledge in the community has, over years and years and years, created issues when it rains. ... we have a propensity to flood out."
"In the last four years, one of the things I put a lot of focus on was a drainage study."
Reed said Lonoke, which has on average a $13 million operating budget each year, was able to secure $170,000 for the study. It was conducted by McKinstry.
The results showed the city would need $10 to $20 million in 10 to 20 years to properly upgrade the city.
"If we're in a rural designation that might make us more eligible to qualify potentially for Watershed grants," Reed said.
Richmond said the Municipal League has put "feelers out to some grant people to see if they know of any impact specifically [on grants due to the rural designation], not on drainage, but in general."
Because of urban growth, urban areas have grown denser, changing from an average population density of 2,343 in 2010 to 2,553 in 2020.
The Little Rock/North Little Rock Urbanized area grew to 461,864 people, up from 431,388 in 2010, according to Chris Covington, interim director of Metroplan, the metropolitan planning organization for Central Arkansas.
"This growth will directly affect the amount of transportation funds the region receives," Covington said. "We don't know [how much] yet because they have to run things through all of the formulas. But it could certainly mean half a billion dollars or more to Central Arkansas and to Metroplan. ... We actually allocate those. So we know that there will be some increase due to the [population] increase that Little Rock had."
Other Arkansas towns and villages to see their designation changed to rural area include Sheridan, Shannon Hills, Dumas, Fordyce, Alexander, Prescott, West Fork, Mountain View, Bald Knob and England.
Information in this story was contributed by Mike Schneider of The Associated Press.