As I predicted here a few months ago [The Census is Here! Is it Too Early to Worry about an Undercount? ], we would begin seeing challenges to the 2010 U.S. Census count sooner rather than later. Right on cue, Mayor Bloomberg announced the City of New York’s intention to file a formal challenge right here in my own backyard of Jackson Heights, Queens. Serendipity? For sure.

According to the Mayor, “Jackson Heights is a good example of the problems we’ve discovered. According to the Census Bureau, the population of Jackson Heights decreased – that’s right, I said decreased – by nearly 5,200 people, or by about five percent, between the years 2000 and 2010.” He goes on to note,“Everything we know about these neighborhoods tells a very different story. These are vibrant, vital communities. People who have tried to find apartments in these neighborhoods can confirm that there just isn’t an abundance of vacancies.”

The Mayor focused on the fact that an undercount results in fewer federal dollars for the City. While important, that is only part of the reason why an undercount is a problem. For commercial district managers, a census undercount, or findings that suggests a population decrease, means more hours logged overcoming the misconception that there is decreased discretionary demand in your neighborhood. It means more time spend finding other, more credible, sources that tell the true story, that your neighborhood is  teeming with people who have money to spend, but few places to spend it. A Census undercount means that retailers are more likely to forego urban opportunities, because when they pull market data, they may not like what they see at first glance.

We already know that getting retailers to urban areas is a challenge, which is why Census accuracy is so critical. In 2004, the International Council of Shopping Centers (ICSC) completed a survey of retailers in partnership with Business for Social Responsibility. When asked why they didn’t invest in urban areas, the second most cited obstacle to investment was an “insufficient concentration of the retailer’s target customer”. Too bad a Census undercount only serves to reaffirm these misconceptions.