PLATO, MO. • They stood outside the "Plato, MO 65552" post office debating just where the exact point would fall.
Brenda Starbuck, a longtime resident, held a local newspaper clipping announcing Plato as the new center of U.S. population and pointed to a nearby hill rising from the valley floor. The spot is there, she said. But village Mayor Bob Biram hoped the spot would be closer to town. He had the perfect place picked out: in front of a wood gazebo along the highway, between the post office and the school.
"It would be something to talk about," the mayor said. "We could promote it."
Word of Plato's claim to fame, perhaps its first claim since being named in 1858 for the philosopher of ancient Greece, had been spreading for weeks in south-central Missouri. Many in this village of 109 people sitting above Roubidoux Creek know about it. They talk about it over at the local bank. And at Weber's Cafe. Teachers boast about it to children at the Plato School District, home to more than 600 pre-K through 12th-grade students who travel from four surrounding counties to a cluster of buildings in the center of town.
"Anything to make a small place seem big," said Pam Fletcher, a fourth-grade teacher. "These kids don't get much of that."
"That would add some excitement to our area," school Superintendent Leon Slape said.
But there is a problem. And it's not a small one.
The U.S. Census Bureau hasn't named the new mean center of population, not yet. The official announcement is expected next Wednesday. The census bureau recently said it was not sitting on the information — it just hadn't yet calculated the imaginary balancing point for the nation if it were spread over a flat map and all 308,745,538 people stood in their homes.
Plato "may or may not be" the new population center, said census bureau spokeswoman Stacey Vidal.
But there was that newspaper article. And a Wikipedia entry naming Plato as the new center. Plus, an interview with a Connecticut radio station that seemed to confirm the news. A phone call from the Missouri Land Survey Program about Plato's new title. And a growing sense of excitement from groups such as the California-based Center for Land Use Interpretation, which plans to bring its educational trailer to Plato.
All signs point to Plato, except for the one that matters, from the census bureau.
But the new population center still might be in Plato. Because Plato makes sense.
SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST
The Texas County village sits about 30 miles southwest of the 2000 census population center, in the Phelps County town of Edgar Springs. And Edgar Springs is about 30 miles southwest of the 1990 census center in Steelville. All of these points follow a trend of the U.S. population center moving in a steady southwesterly progression since 1950, as people continue to march into Texas, Arizona, Utah and Nevada.
"I'm not too shocked" that someone picked Plato as the new center, said Michael Ratcliffe, assistant chief of the census bureau's geography division. "If I had to guess, it would be in that area or maybe a bit more toward Springfield, Mo."
Ratcliffe's office is in charge of calculating the new population center using block-level census data. But his office had not yet completed the job.
A few weeks ago, a colleague directed Ratcliffe to the Wikipedia entry for "Mean center of U.S. population." It listed the new census center as being in Plato, down to even the GPS coordinates. (The page recently was tweaked to say the census bureau did not provide the calculations. But Plato was still named as the 2010 center.)
"We were shocked," Ratcliffe recalled. "And the next question was, what data set did they use?"
Plato was added to the Wikipedia page on Dec. 21, about the same time the census bureau released 2004-2009 population estimates. Attempts to reach the Wikipedia user who made the changes were unsuccessful. But Ratcliffe said he believes the center was calculated from the estimates. The bureau also publishes the spatial statistics equation it uses.
Plato's campaign to be the nation's new center seems to have started there. Then on Dec. 27, a Connecticut Public Radio morning show jumped in. A radio producer e-mailed Brad Gentry, publisher of the Houston Herald, located 30 miles from Plato, to set up an interview to discuss the big news. The e-mail referred to the Wikipedia page.
So, the WNPR radio host asked Gentry on the air, when did people find out the new population center was in that part of Missouri?
"I don't think most people are aware that we've received that distinction yet," Gentry replied.
Gentry, later recalling the experience, said an official with the Missouri Land Survey Program, part of the state's Department of Natural Resources, also called him to explain how the process worked for a new population center, including details for holding a ceremony.
"They said it was going to be in the Plato area," Gentry said.
On Dec. 30 his newspaper ran its own article under the headline, "Census numbers put focus on Plato."
Starbuck, who has lived most of her 69 years in the village and collects its history, dutifully clipped out the article.
'HEART OF AMERICA'
The mean center of population is just a theoretical point on the map, but one that garners widespread attention for what it says about the nation.
"It represents a search for the heart of America," said Matthew Coolidge, director of the land use group waiting to find out when to come to Plato.
A trip to Edgar Springs, population of 208, reveals just how much the distinction means to a small community.
Pamela James was making biscuits and gravy breakfasts at Hot Lips restaurant in town when the call from the census bureau came in April 2000.
"It was very exciting. But we didn't have a clue what they were talking about," recalled James, who is now the town clerk.
They soon did. Later that year, a ceremony was held to install a brass survey mark noting Edgar Springs as the "Census 2000 Center of Population." It rained that day. But it didn't matter. Local and state politicians showed up. So did a group of census officials. School kids took part, including James' daughter Megan. And reporters from all over the nation and world visited Edgar Springs. Tourists stopped to take photos of themselves posing by the marker. Local shops sold "population center" T-shirts.
"I got to say that I live in the middle of nowhere and the middle of everywhere," James said.
"I wish it'd stay here," said Caroline Dunham, a town alderman.
"Yeah," James said, "we're kind of sorry to be losing it."
They stood in the town hall, where mementos from the census ceremony were posted in a glass case on the wall. The newspaper clippings were just beginning to yellow.
"I heard it was moving someplace — where was it?" said Dunham.
"I think it was somewhere near Plato," James responded.
It just might be Plato.
In a search for the nation's heart, its midpoint, Plato fits the role.
Now it's up to the census bureau. But there's no reason for Plato to feel let down if the spot lands someplace else, said Ratcliffe of the census bureau.
"When we calculate it, I think we'll find it's very close to Plato," he said. "So I don't think there needs to be any broken hearts."
Data provided by U.S. Census Bureau.