Census results show slight decline in county’s population

  • Franklin County population percent change between 2010 and 2020 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Franklin County towns are green and Worcester County towns are purple. Darker shades indicate population growth while lighter shades indicate population decline. STAFF GRAPHIC/CHRIS LARABEE

Published: 8/22/2021 2:11:33 PM
Modified: 8/22/2021 2:11:33 PM

Franklin and Berkshire counties may be at the center of conversations on congressional and legislative redistricting this fall as a result of changes in populations shown in the 2020 U.S. census.

State Rep. Paul Mark, who played a large role in promoting census participation last year, said Friday that he was ultimately pleased with the results of the 2020 data. He said “more complete” data is expected to be shared Sept. 30, and discussions on redistricting could follow in October.

“I was very happy to see that Greenfield showed some growth, that the decline in Franklin County was less than we expected and that the statewide numbers came in much better than we thought,” said Mark, D-Peru. “Especially with COVID, there was a real fear that numbers in Amherst, Cambridge and Boston were going to be way lower because of the student populations basically evacuating. It seems like the schools and communities did as good a job as possible of making sure they got an accurate count of the student populations.”

While the population across Massachusetts has increased, Berkshire and Franklin counties actually decreased in size since 2010. Berkshire County saw a roughly 1.7% decrease in population since 2010, and Franklin County saw a 0.5% decrease. These changes in population could have a notable impact on congressional and state legislation representation. Congressional districts will need to be redrawn to maintain a population of 781,000 people in the district — an increase from a previously required 727,000.

Mark said the implications for redistricting based on population changes “are pretty serious.”

“We have a county of about 71,000 people that needs to fit into multiple representative districts, multiple senatorial districts and possibly multiple congressional districts,” Mark said. “The trick here is how do we maximize the voice of the people of our county in Boston and in Washington? ... As we look forward, though, the region — Franklin County and Western Massachusetts — we really have to take advantage of whatever we can do to make sure that by the time the 2030 census rolls around we’re showing some kind of a growth.”

Mark said it’s important for Franklin County to focus on “what makes us unique, what makes us special and what makes us an attractive place for people to either move to, or to stay.”

“While I wish the census, the way it worked, wasn’t this competition on who could attract the most people, there is an element of that,” Mark said. “And while we don’t want the nature of our community to change, we do need to keep growing and keep building toward the future.”

Mark also acknowledged a number of people who moved into Western Massachusetts counties from metropolitan areas during the COVID-19 pandemic, after census results began to be collected.

Approximately half the towns in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region saw decreases in population, with the largest decline, of 7.25%, being in Conway.

Conway’s population decreased by 136 residents, a number the town is planning to contest with the U.S. Census Bureau. Selectboard member Philip Kantor noted federal and state funding allocations are determined by population numbers and this will be “fairly catastrophic”

“When you have a 7.2% drop in population, that correlates with a similar drop in revenue from government,” Kantor said. “It’s very unfortunate. If the number stands, it’s not good for the town’s financial future.”

He said town officials are gathering data so they can present a compelling case to the federal government.

“There’s not anybody in town, in town government, that thinks that number is accurate,” Kantor said. “We understand sitting down with the Census Bureau with just our thoughts and opinions won’t get us very far.”

Kantor said he thinks ZIP code boundaries and the counting method may be behind the large drop in population.

“We have about 100 families or more in Conway, that although they live within town limits, their ZIP code is in a neighboring town,” Kantor said. “One of the faults in the system is an inability to recognize that from afar.”

He noted the census is a massive undertaking for the government and mistakes are entirely possible.

“We can see how the job of calculating population is very complicated, very nuanced and very complex,” Kantor said. “We can see how mistakes can be made without bad intent. … People are trying to do their best.”

The largest local increase in population was reportedly in Wendell, with a 9% rise in population.

However, Wendell Town Clerk Anna Wetherby said this may have changed since the census data was collected. According to that data, Wendell reported a population of 924, an increase from 848 in 2010, but Wetherby said it’s possible its population is currently closer to 905.

“People have left town, and we’ve had several deaths in the past year,” Wetherby said. “At the time they were doing the census that was probably a good guess.”

She said it’s possible the decline in population since the census was conducted could be related to the wave of housing sales across the country. Wetherby said there is a notable number of vacant houses in Wendell.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579. Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

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