No population bounce here

Lawrence loses residents in newest head count

Lawrence officially has joined the ranks of Atchison, Coffeyville and too many cities west of Salina to even mention. It’s a Kansas community that’s losing population – at least according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In estimates released today, the Census Bureau claims Lawrence from July 2004 to July 2005 lost 26 residents – less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city’s overall population. But the numbers are significant because it is believed to be the first time in at least 30 years the city has recorded an annual decline in population.

The report also marks the fifth year in a row that the Census Bureau has shown the city growing at a rate well below its historical average of 2 percent.

And the report shows that Eudora, Tonganoxie, Baldwin and other communities just outside Lawrence are growing robustly, perhaps at the expense of Lawrence.

“It is very disturbing,” City Commissioner Sue Hack said. “I think it is pretty obvious that we have a cost-of-living issue in Lawrence. This just statistically proves that communities that are less expensive to live in are drawing folks who probably would choose to live in Lawrence otherwise.”

The census report reveals several findings about the area, including:

¢ Lawrence population dropped to 81,816 people, down from 81,842 in 2004. Since July 2000, the city has added only 1,535 residents, which equates to an annual growth rate of 0.3 percent.

Morgan Thevarajoo, center, 11, and his sister Hannah, 9, bounce around on their backyard trampoline as their mother Kim Thevarajoo, back, cleans their play area. After living in Lawrence for about eight years, the family moved to Eudora in 2003 because houses are more affordable there and the school district is smaller. A new Census Bureau report shows that Eudora's population continues to climb, while the number of people living in Lawrence dropped slightly.

¢ Outlying communities of Eudora, Tonganoxie, Baldwin and De Soto all posted strong growth rates for the year and the five-year period. During the same time period, Tonganoxie grew by 5.9 percent per year, Eudora by 3.5 percent, De Soto by 2.1 percent and Baldwin by 1.3 percent.

‘A mystery to me’

Several area residents said they could understand why Lawrence was lagging while other communities were growing.

“It comes down to housing prices,” said Tim Metz, who had lived in Lawrence since the early ’80s, then briefly moved to Colorado. When he and his wife, Kendra, returned this year to take a job in Lawrence, they chose to live in Eudora.

“We must have looked at 50 homes in Lawrence, and we couldn’t find one that we thought was priced where it should be,” said Metz, who is a lender at Douglas County Bank. “We just thought there was better value in Eudora. And you’re basically still five minutes away from Lawrence. You have all the benefits, but you don’t have all the people around you.”

Census data

Explore population trends in census data for Lawrence and other Kansas cities from 1900 to 2005. Go »

The report, though, has left some city planners scratching their heads. City planner David Guntert is entering his 30th year tracking population numbers for the city.

“It is a mystery to me,” Guntert said. “I have no idea why they would say we actually lost population.”

The explanation likely is not something simple, such as a change in how the Census Bureau counts university students who live in the city. Census Bureau officials have said their estimating process is the same as it has been for decades. In other words, it is the same process they were using to come up with the growth rates of 2 percent that generally were accepted by city leaders during the 1980s and 1990s.

Guntert said the number of building permits for new homes and apartments strongly suggested the city still was growing at a significant pace. Using those building permit numbers, Guntert estimates the city has a population of 89,643 people – about 7,800 people more than the census estimates.

“I just can’t even begin to believe that we’re building all these housing units and they are sitting vacant,” Guntert said.

Home market slows

But some members of the real estate industry were giving weight to the Census Bureau estimates.

“I would not be comfortable in saying that I don’t believe them,” said Pat Flavin, president of Lawrence Realty Associates. “My gut tells me that we’re still growing a little bit, but I’m probably saying that more out of habit than anything else.”

Flavin, who also is chair of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, said Lawrence homes were taking longer to sell than they once did.

The Lawrence market in 2005 saw the amount of time it takes to sell a home rise to its highest level since 2001 when the 9-11 attacks slowed the real estate market nationwide.

The average in 2005 was 113 days. Thus far in 2006, the average is up, with many newly constructed homes staying on the market more than 200 days.

Flavin said the numbers told him Lawrence needed to work to provide affordable housing and attract new jobs to the city.

“Lawrence has had a reputation of being – I’m not going to say business unfriendly – but kind of a quirky place to try to go into or expand,” Flavin said. “We have to figure out a way to be more accommodating without giving up the farm.”

Census formula

The Census Bureau estimates populations with a formula that relies on federal records listing people’s addresses, such as tax returns, Medicare and Medicaid applications, birth records, death records and other data.