Archive for Sunday, March 16, 2003

Rising commuter rate drives fears

County may be experiencing ‘brain drain’

March 16, 2003


The roads leading out of Douglas County aren't one way after all.

According to recently released Census data, 7,887 people drive into Douglas County to work. But nearly twice that many Douglas County residents -- 13,082 people -- work outside the county.

What has some economic development leaders even more concerned is that the number of Douglas County residents who commute is growing at a rapid pace.

According to an analysis by Kansas University's Policy Research Institute, the number of county residents who commute to work has grown by 73 percent since 1990. That number is much higher than the county's population growth of 22 percent during the same period.

"What it pretty clearly suggests is that the number of people who live here but feel like they need to work outside the county is going up much more rapidly than the number of jobs that are being created here," said Luke Middleton, a research economist with PRI.

Too much?

Nearly one of every four employed county residents commutes to work. In 1990, that number was about one of every six.

Middleton, though, stopped short of saying that Douglas County's commuter rate was too high.

"I'm not surprised by the numbers, but whether they are too high or too low is pretty hard to say," Middleton said. "It just varies so much from community to community that there's really no meaningful average."

Officials at the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce are becoming concerned about the growing number. Lynn Parman, vice president of economic development for the chamber, said she suspected the county's commuter rate was higher than it should be.

"I think what these numbers tell me is that we may be reaching somewhat of an imbalance," Parman said. "We may be experiencing some brain drain."

Reason for concern

Parman said the community should take the commuter issue seriously. She said people who work outside the community tended to spend money there, whether it be for gas, meals or grocery shopping. She said it was likely that the county was losing money.

Some residents agree.

"I think it is a bad deal," said Dave Baldwin, a Lawrence resident who used to commute to the Kansas City area. "I think it is part of our housing problem here in Lawrence. All the better paying jobs are in Kansas City or Topeka, and then those people come back here to live and drive up the cost of housing.

"It seems like we end up with the lower-wage jobs but the higher-priced housing."

Middleton, though, said it was possible that the commuting issue didn't create as much harm to a community's economy as many people believed. He said there was no data to show that commuters spend significantly less in their hometown than noncommuters do.

In fact, he said, one positive way to look at commuters is that they take money, in the form of wages, out of one community and bring them back to Lawrence.

"I think a lot of the concern stems from this idea most Americans have about being self-sufficient," Middleton said. "We feel like we shouldn't need to rely on Johnson County for jobs to take care of ourselves.

"From an economic standpoint, I don't think there are very many issues that we consider to be overly problematic. I think it is more of a societal-type of thing."

Baldwin said he knew firsthand about the social effects.

"I think one of the biggest problems (about commuting) is it just eats up people's time," Baldwin said. "If I was still spending 10 hours a week on the road, that is 10 hours a week less that I would be able to spend on groups like Habitat for Humanity."

Tough to change

Parman said she thought community leaders had become more committed to reducing the percentage of county residents who commute.

"I don't think people are all that surprised that we have a significant number of commuters," Parman said. "But when I tell them how much the numbers have been increasing, I think that does surprise people. I think they realize this is something that is becoming a problem.

"I think that is one big reason why economic development has become so important in many people's eyes."

Parman said she was trying to use the large number of commuters to the community's advantage when she attempts to attract new companies to locate here.

"We really market to companies that we have a worker base that they should have potential to capture and keep here," Parman said. "You have to think that people would rather work where they live. What all this tells me is that we need to be attracting jobs that really match the skills of our work force. That's how we combat this."

Middleton agreed that focused economic development likely was the community's best strategy to reduce the commuter rate.

Reducing the rate, though, won't be easy, and Middleton said people should be realistic about their expectations. He said Lawrence always would have a significant number of commuters because of its location between two of the state's largest employment centers -- Kansas City and Topeka.

"I think it is inevitable that we'll always have quite a few," Middleton said. "I think it is really part of what makes Lawrence, Lawrence. To some degree, it is really just the way it is."

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