Friday, February 02, 2018

Defining 'small town' in Wyoming, the least populous state

The Casper Star Tribune recently kicked off its year-long "Out Here" series on Wyoming's rural areas with a thorny question: what qualifies as a small town in the country's least populous state?

The word "rural" doesn't have one simple definition: the Census Bureau doesn't define it directly, but it does define "urban clusters" as areas with at least 2,500 people. Less populated areas might be considered rural by that definition. Another federal definition says a county is rural if it doesn't have a city with at least 50,000 people, the requirement for a metropolitan area. Wyoming has 99 incorporated towns, but only two were larger than 50,000 as of the 2010 census: the capital city of Cheyenne at 59,466, and Casper at 55,316. Wyoming has a different legal standard for smallness: any town with a population of at least 4,000 is a "first-class city."

"In a recent online survey, Star-Tribune readers were split on how many people live in a Wyoming 'small town'," Arno Rosenfeld reports for the Star Tribune. "Twenty-seven percent thought it was any place with fewer than 20,000 people, while nearly 22 percent thought a small town in the Cowboy State had no more than 1,500 people."

Ken Johnson, a University of New Hampshire professor and rural expert, said people in rural America have different standards for what qualifies as a big or small town, such as the presence of a Walmart, courthouse or a hospital.

Gale Gunzenhauser, who lives in the 3,000 person town of Bar Nunn, has a more practical definition: "It's not crowded. I know my neighbors and my neighbors know me, but nobody bothers nobody," he told Rosenfeld, adding that he moved there to escape the sound of beer bottles breaking on the sidewalk outside his apartment in Casper. "In Bar Nunn, Gunzenhauser said, you couldn’t hear the bottles breaking: the sidewalks were made of dirt."

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