It is not often that a dry, number-laden government report serves as a conversation starter. But that is exactly what a recent U.S. Census Bureau report should become for Lawrence leaders.
The report, released last week, found that Douglas County's population growth has slowed considerably in the last four years. The report estimates that from 2000 to 2004, the county has added population at a rate of 0.7 percent per year, compared to a historical average of about 2 percent per year. If that trend continues through the end of the decade the county will add just over 7,000 new residents by 2010, making it the first decade since the 1950s that the county has added fewer than 10,000 people.
That ought to get some attention at City Hall. Population figures are among the more significant statistics in the city's ledger. The numbers directly affect the amount of federal and state funds the city qualifies for, which indirectly affects how much all of us have to pay in local taxes. And having an accurate assessment of the city's population is at the foundation of planning efforts to help the city grow in an efficient and effective manner.
City officials question the accuracy of the Census report, saying they have collected data that shows the city has grown close to its historical average. It does seem hard to believe that the city's growth has slowed so dramatically given all the activity we see in town. Because so much is at stake, city officials should press their case with the Census Bureau and make sure accurate figures are recorded.
But city leaders also must be willing to consider the possibility that the report reflects a trend that would be difficult for local officials to swallow: that Lawrence is becoming less attractive to more people.
For instance, officials might look at comparisons between housing costs and personal incomes in the Lawrence. Statistics show that, during the 1990s, housing values rose by 73 percent while incomes grew by just 42 percent. That's an interesting divide, and one that anyone who cares about the future of the city should ponder. Do we want to become more of a bedroom community? What's a healthy rate of population growth? Employment rates have been relatively steady in the county. What kind of jobs do we want to attract to this community? Is something holding our local economy back today? Do housing prices threaten the future diversity of our community?
There are many more questions, and they aren't easy to answer. But it is time that we have a serious communitywide discussion that leads to some sort of conclusion on who will be able to call this fine city home.
After all, if the latest report is correct, potential residents already are having their own discussions about our city. We should be asking why more and more may be saying "no thanks" to Lawrence.