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Rogers County shows most growth, more diversity

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CLAREMORE, Okla. (AP) _ Juan Leon has lived here only a month, but he already agrees with Dell Davis, a 30-year resident, why Rogers County is booming.

``It's a nice place to live,'' they both said Wednesday _ one in a soft Mexican accent, the other in a take-charge voice befitting the Chamber of Commerce president.

Rogers County, with its Tulsa suburbs and small town feel, grew more than any other county in Oklahoma over the past two years, Census estimates released early Thursday show.

And, like all of Oklahoma, it grew more diverse.

The state's population increased by 1.1 percent between 2000 and 2002. Growth in its minority populations outpaced the 0.3 percent among white non-Hispanics.

The state's Asian population grew by 13.4 percent to 53,578 in 2002. There were 6.9 percent more Hispanics at 192,769, 2.9 percent more blacks at 266,410 and a 1.3 percent increase in the American Indian population at 269,921.

In Rogers County, the overall population grew 5.9 percent to 75,567. Hispanics, American Indians, Asians, blacks and people of multiple races accounted for about a quarter of that growth.

Claremore, the county seat, hums with the activity of a community on the move.

New homes sprout at the edge of town where wildflowers once grew. New chain restaurants are moving in. Traffic is thick where Will Rogers Boulevard cuts through the middle of town.

Even though the city is too far from Tulsa for residents to consider it a suburb, Davis suspects Claremore's growth is being fueled by people who work in Tulsa but want to live where life moves a little slower.

``I think they like what's still perceived as a hometown environment,'' she said.

On Wednesday, Davis attended the ribbon cutting on a new Mexican restaurant co-owned by 23-year-old Leon's brother.

El Azteca sits across the street from the Claremore Expo Center and around the corner from Rogers State University, where fall enrollment grew this year by an estimated 300 students.

``Hola!'' Leon said, greeting customers at the door in Spanish before quickly switching to English.

The Mexican immigrant, who has lived for 10 years in the United States, said his family chose Claremore because ``it's a good town to live in.''

Like Davis, he cited a low crime rate, friendly people and country living, saying he admires the ranchers he sees in town.

``I don't like living in big cities,'' he said.

Claremore has no Hispanic grocery, which Leon sees as a business opportunity _ especially if the county's Hispanic population grows like it did between 2000 and 2002. It increased 29 percent to nearly 1,700 people.

City Manager Mark Rounds welcomes the changing demographics but said it has created new needs, including the need for a bilingual police officers.

Claremore's new diversity speaks to a city becoming ``more up to date with the times,'' he said.

One downtown businessman, though, said he could do without the growth, particularly in the immigrant population.

Antique store owner Jerry Reed doesn't begrudge the Hispanics for coming but sees them as a strain on social services.

``I don't think it's fair to the American people,'' he said, sitting on a bench outside his shop.

Reed has lived all of his 62 years in Rogers County and acknowledges he's reluctant to see any change. When he built his house north of town 30 years ago, he had one neighbor. Now, there are homes everywhere.

``I don't like it,'' he said, glancing down the busy street lined by old brick buildings in the heart of downtown.

There, the striped pole at the Hometown Barbershop turns, and the businesses wear old-time names like Dorothy's Flowers and Dot's Cafe. There wasn't a parking place in sight.

``It's probably good for the community,'' Reed said, ``but not the ones that's been here a long time.''
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