Dubuque leaders fear proposed loss of metropolitan status would make area ‘invisible’

With Dubuque’s status as a metropolitan area in jeopardy, local leaders are sounding the alarm about what that could mean for the city.

A committee of representatives from federal statistics agencies recently recommended that the Office of Management and Budget make a change that would downgrade 144 cities across the U.S., including Dubuque, from metropolitan areas to “micropolitan” designations.

They proposed changing the definition of a metropolitan statistical area. A metro area would have to have at least 100,000 people in its core city to count as an MSA, double the 50,000-person threshold that has been in place for the past 70 years. Cities formerly designated as metros with core populations of 50,000 to 99,999 people would be changed to “micropolitan” statistical areas instead.

The city of Dubuque is part of the broader Dubuque metropolitan statistical area, which encompasses all of Dubuque County. The county had an estimated population of 97,311 in 2019, while the city of Dubuque stood at 57,882 residents — far short of the proposed threshold.

Molly Grover, president and CEO of Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce, pulled no punches when framing the potential impact of such a change.

“Should something like this go into effect, it would wipe Dubuque off the map,” she said.

Such fears were echoed by other local leaders, who emphasized that companies often begin their search for a new community by broadly assessing the nation’s metro areas and then narrowing down their options.

Rick Dickinson, president and CEO of Greater Dubuque Development Corp., explained that many companies contract with “site selector” firms that help clients identify possible areas to which they can relocate.

“Site locators across the U.S. use MSAs as sort of a touchstone, a starting point to find areas that could have the workforce, the infrastructure and the overall capacity to be a serious contender for relocation or expansion,” he said. “Either you are on that list or you’re not.”

Overall, if the guidelines are changed, 37% of the 392 current metro areas would lose their status.

Throughout the U.S., potential changes to the metro designation also have sparked concerns about changes in federal funding.

Dubuque City Manager Mike Van Milligen said he has been assured that transportation funding and Community Development Block Grant funding would not be impacted in the event that a community’s metro status is removed, despite the fact that disbursement of such funds has been tied to a city’s metropolitan standing in the past.

“We’re being assured it won’t affect federal funding streams,” he said. “I’m not convinced that is the case.”

Other municipal leaders throughout the country have expressed a similar sense of trepidation, voicing concerns that stripping the “metropolitan” status from communities would be the first logical step down the road of stripping associated funding.

From an economic development perspective, Dickinson emphasized that the MSA designation remains a key differentiator.

Dickinson said there are about 19,500 incorporated communities in the U.S., and only 392 have a population in excess of 50,000 and are designated MSAs. He noted that the Dubuque area has maintained its MSA status since 1950.

Federal officials have said possible changes to the “metro” definition are merely being considered for statistical purposes.

Even after looking further into the proposal, Dickinson said the motivations for such a change remain unclear.

“There’s no apparent reason why they would do this,” he said. “But the impacts — the potential loss in revenue and the way it would take communities off the map — is clear. We believe it should stay the way it is.”

Local leaders have sprung into action in response.

Grover said the chamber reached out to federal leaders, contacted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and will continue to work with representatives from GDDC and the City of Dubuque in hopes of stopping the change before it occurs.

“We are trying to work together to leverage our voice on this issue,” she said.

Grover noted that the Office of Management and Budget is continuing to take public comments on the matter through March 19.

Van Milligen said he is pleased that economic development organizations such as the chamber and GDDC have taken notice of the proposed changes and taken steps to stop them.

Similar to the leaders of those organizations, he shares concerns that such a change would result in a hit to Dubuque’s visibility on a national scale.

“On the East and West coasts in this country, they often call us fly-over country,” he said. “Most people there have little knowledge or experience with the middle of the country. So unless you have a way onto their radar screen, you become invisible.”